A man (not Will Self) surveys an array of spoons. Illustration: Jackson Rees
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The changing fortunes of my family can be measured in our use of the humble spoon

When it to comes to putting stuff in your mouth, only the spoon will do.

For the past fortnight or so, I have been much exercised by the handsome “personalised spoon offer” that Kellogg’s has had blazoned on its Rice Krispies boxes. My youngest and I decided we very much wanted a spoon with our own slogan engraved on it and he began working on the words while I set about eating enough of the desiccated little blebs to justify buying the two further boxes we needed to obtain the “secret code numbers” required to unlock the spoon trove. On the back of these boxes are winsome pictures of happy new spoon-owners – but we were dismayed at their lack of ­imagination. All their spoons were simply personalised with their names (Carol, Keisha, Tarquin, et al) and the Kellogg’s cartoon brand mascots, whereas we were thinking of something surreal and subversive, such as: “Which orifice? Your choice.”

Actually, when I saw quite how innocent the other spoon-personalisers had been – how untainted by corrosive irony – I wondered at the depths of my psyche. What is it about cutlery that spoons up from my unconscious such anatomically perverse thoughts? I meditated on my childhood. Our American mother often used to remind us of her childhood in the Great Depression and used this early experience of privation to justify her habit of nicking cutlery from hotels, restaurants and even transatlantic liners: for years, we stirred our hot chocolate with some particularly chunky Queen Mary-monogrammed teaspoons.

My father brought different cutlery to the table (what a pleasure it is for once to use this expression both metaphorically and literally). An epigone, he entered the marriage with several canteens of old family silver. As a child, I was fascinated by these polished, hardwood boxes, with their green-velvet-lined interiors in which lay odd-shaped fish knives, pinioned in rows, and spoons personalised with family crests. But he – and therefore we – were on the social down escalator, so there were few occasions that merited the deployment of the entire shiny complement: knives, forks and spoons arranged in descending order of size so as to parenthesise the placemats. In truth, such was the queered problematic of my mother’s snobbery that she regarded certain forms of tableware as hopelessly non-U, reserving the full weight of her contempt for those petit-bourgeois families that cinched their serviettes (“napkins” is the acceptable term) with personalised rings.

Hmm, personalised rings . . . I feel rather like the young Freud – the Freud of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life who discovered such rich seams of suppressed psychic content hidden beneath quotidian tongue-slips and semantic glitches. It would be a simple enough spoonoanalysis were I to have grown up intent on repairing the fortunes of the House of Self so that once more, as in days of yore, a quince spoon was required at every meal – but I didn’t. True, I am a reader of Private Eye’s Me and My Spoon column and I also have a fascination with sporks, the liminal status of which is a constant reproof to our collective obsession with cookie-cutter categorisation, but as regular readers of this column will be only too aware, the last thing I want is an amuse-bouche served in a china spoon.

What I do like is the thought that the ancestral cutlery will continue to tinkle and clank down through generations of Selfs and that, at some point in the distant future, one of my descendants will peer wonderingly at the faint letters incised in the handle of a spoon they’ve known since birth but never properly examined; and with the assistance, perhaps, of some late-21st-century optical technology of which we can have no ken, painstakingly decipher: “Which orifice? Your choice.” I would further like it if my hypothetical descendant was then visited with a similar epiphany to Shelley’s “traveller from an antique land”, so apprehending the folly of not just personalised spoons but all human endeavour.

It is a factoid oft retold that the flimsy fork is a comparatively late addition to the solid British table. Right up until the early-modern era, even the highest in the land were perfectly happy to eat with knife, spoon and fingers-in-lieu-of-tines. Were William Burroughs to have written Naked Lunch during this period, he would presumably have chosen a different title for it, given that this one was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s insight that a naked lunch is “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. Forks are evil instruments, stabbing weapons comprised of four or five épées welded together. Knives are often the subject of amnesties but a spoon amnesty would be whimsical. As for fingers, there’s no telling what they might get up to.

No, when it to comes to putting stuff in your mouth, only the spoon will do. Only the spoon is rounded and smooth and often brimming with milk like a lactating breast. Only a spoon will nurture you and care for you and love you unconditionally. So there’s nothing in the least surreal or subversive about our personalising slogan, because that’s the thing about a spoon: it doesn’t judge you, it accepts you for who you are unreservedly and equally it accepts whatever it is you want to do with it. Which is just as well, because I for one take a dim view of extra-cutlery relationships. Running off with a dish . . . ? Hey diddle-diddle, Spoony, what are you like . . .?

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.