From Fox, Kate: Watching the English (2014 ed). p. 499 Bottom.

The Self-deprecating Insult Rule

Speaking of privileged schoolchildren and the English art of indirectness, here is a quote I came across in a posh magazine from a mother whose daughter was in the same house as Kate Middleton (now the Duchess of Cambridge, married to Prince William) at Marlborough, a very grand private boarding school: ‘There was always something slightly galling about having your children at school with the Middletons. Every pristine item of clothing would have a beautifully sewn-in name tape, for instance. It was unthinkable that they would end up resorting to marker pens on labels like the rest of us. There were huge picnics at sports day, the smartest tennis racquets, that kind of thing. It made the rest of us all feel rather hopeless.’

To anyone who understands English class-indicators, this mother’s apparently humble statement – all self-denigrating and full of admiration for the Middleton family’s perfections – is not only an indirect boast, but also a subtle snobby put-down. Even if you are not English, if you’ve read the rest of this book, you should have no trouble deciphering the coded insults:

• You will know, as this mother clearly does, that caring about every item of clothing being ‘pristine’, with perfectly sewn-in name tapes, is a middle-middle or even lower-middle indicator. Even the word ‘pristine’ is a sneer: only the suburban bourgeoisie regard it as a term of approbation, and fuss about having everything ‘pristine’ or ‘spotless’. Remember the lines from Betjeman’s satirical poem. ‘You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes/And I must have things daintily served’? (Or if you want a more modern example, think of the desperate social-climber Hyacinth Bucket, in the television comedy Keeping Up Appearances, and her constant fretting over such dainty details.)

The boldened lines refer to this poem.

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    Are you asking what John Betjeman meant by these lines in his poem (in which case, why not just quote the poem instead of this book passage), or are you asking about the relevance to this passage in Kate Fox's book?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 1, 2018 at 11:52
  • @Randal'Thor I intended the former, but thanks for recommending the latter: I fancy to know both now!
    – user175
    Sep 3, 2018 at 4:16

2 Answers 2


The lines from the Betjeman poem are setting out all the faux pas that middle class arriviste people make while trying to align themselves with the upper-class, unaware that their efforts are comical to the actual upper classes. I would not speculate which group Betjeman is less fond of....

The poem written and published shortly after Nancy Mitford's The English Aristocracy in 1955. 'How to get on in Society was published in 'A few Late Chrysanthemums' as well as the anthology Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry Into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy in 1956.

In your cited extract there are a number of class indicators:

‘You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes/And I must have things daintily served’

The class indicators are not limited to language, but also include insights to other aspects of life.

The language indicators in the lines are

  • kiddies


  • serviettes

'Serviette' is specified in articles on 'U and Non-U', that is 'Upper class and non upperclass' language as defined by Alan S. C. Ross, professor of linguistics in the University of Birmingham and popularised by Mitford in 'The English Aristocracy' and may be one of the best known examples. The 'U' term is'napkin'. Both refer to a fabric item in this context. So Betjeman's use of 'Serviette' tells us the speaker is 'Non-U'.

Likewise 'Kiddies' is Non-U, though not included in the U/Non-U wordlists which circulate.

I'm not sure It would even count as Middle class in current days. My newly professional class mother in the 1970s eschewed 'kid' and 'kiddie' as being downright common, though there may be some regional variation in that.

The other class indicators are the reference to crumpling the serviettes and the desire for dainty serving.

While a Non-U household may have acquired one or more sets of serviette/napkins equal in quality to those of the U household, in the U household each napkin only serves at one meal time. In the Non-U household it has to serve all day or possibly more than one day.

This is neatly illustrated by this extract from 'Mad Toffs: the British Upper Classes at their Best and Worst' by Patrick Scrivenor:

One of the Dukes of Devonshire.... was one day buying silver at Asprey, when he noticed some circular silver rings. he turned to his steward and enquired of him what they were.

'Those, your Grace, are napkin rings'.

'A napkin ring?'

'Your Grace, when the middle classes breakfast, they take a fresh napkin, and when they have finished, they fold it, and roll it and place it through the rings. They use it again for luncheon, tea and dinner. Only at the end of the day is it sent to be laundered.'

The Duke was shocked. 'They use the same napkin throughout the day?'

'They do, Your Grace.'

'My goodness,' said the Duke, 'I had no idea such poverty existed'.

These stories do not have to be true. They are perfect as parables.

Therefore, concern at the crumpled state of serviettes can only indicate that the napkins will not be sent to laundry immediately the meal is concluded. They must instead be smoothed, folded, rolled and inserted into their silver rings for re-use.

For having things daintily served, like 'kiddies' evidence is harder to cite. My understanding is that it is a matter of approach as this blog by Lucy Fisher, author of 'How to Talk Posh' suggests:

Upwards don’t try to be dainty. They’d probably call it “fussy” or “twee”. (They have their own kind of insufferable tweeness but that’s another story.) And you don't "serve" food in your own home.

So what Kate Fox means by citing the lines is that the Middletons, despite their financial resources and their very best efforts to be 'proper', are doomed to continually give away their lack of 'U-ness' by caring about all the wrong things in all the wrong ways.


The only interpretation of the OP's question that makes any sense to me, in light of Fox's very clear language, and Betjeman's heavy-handed irony, is

what is a "serviette"?

Revised answer (based in large part on a comment from Spagirl, and supported by the oracle of Delphi) is that "serviette" is the non-U word for "napkin". The line between genteel and non genteel households is drawn between use of the terms "serviette" and "napkin", not between uncrumpled ones and uncrumpled. That Betjeman's narrator worries about the latter shows his non-U ness.

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    It isn't about what the object is, it's about what you call it and how you treat it. Betjeman would not have been writing about paper items, but whether you call the cloth a napkin or a serviette, whether you keep in neat for the next use or crumple it for the staff to deal with. You are correct that it is about U and Non-U, just not what constitutes U and Non-U in this instance.
    – Spagirl
    Sep 2, 2018 at 10:09
  • Thank you. For me it is about what the OP's original question was, and how to answer it. OP (voracious reader of how-to-be-cultured books that he is) clearly understand the U vs non U general point. But perhaps he didn't know what "serviette" means. That's the question I answered. Sep 2, 2018 at 11:38
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    Sorry, I haven't been clear. The distinction in british-english between a serviette and a napkin is not the material they are made of, but the class of the person naming them. As such the definition you offer the OP is incorrect in this context.
    – Spagirl
    Sep 2, 2018 at 11:42
  • Somehow I doubt the OP's essential question is "what is a serviette?" That would surely be easier to answer by a quick lookup than the more complex questions about the use of language and social cues, which might not be as "clear"/"heavy-handed" to the OP as they are to you.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 2, 2018 at 22:46
  • Maybe, but I think not. Sep 2, 2018 at 23:13

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