There are times in these dark days when you get an end-of-civilisation feeling. Our culture hangs by a generational thread — if one cohort doesn’t pass the parcel on, that’s it; it’s gone. So we ask ourselves: whither the saucer?
The reason I ask is that M&S, that totem of middle-class tastes, is abandoning the cup and saucer in its in-store cafes. Instead they’re serving hot beverages in mugs. Now, mugs have a place in the great scheme of things. But they are usually heavy, lumpy things; they are not a substitute for a cup and saucer.
The thing about saucers is that they’re functional. If you put a cup in a saucer, there are no drips on the surface you put them on, no ugly tea or coffee circles. The wet spoon can rest on the saucer after you’ve stirred in your milk or sugar, supposing you take either.
And this in turn conjures up the bleak reality a mug entails, that it’s being put on a surface that you can wipe clean afterwards: a melanine or formica table. No shiny wood, no table cloths. A whole world of embroidered linen and polished wood is discounted with a mug.
I come from a pottery family; my father was a ceramics designer and he could and did design mugs (his Celtic Tree of Life design was highly regarded) but there is no substitute in the great civilisational scheme of things for an actual tea set: earthenware is good for everyday drinking, but bone china is a material which conjures up a world in which taking tea is a glad moment.
For the working classes saucers were a thing too; people poured their scalding hot strong tea into saucers and drank it from there. Funnily enough, that was an eighteenth century habit, and the saucer dates from about 1700.
As telling changes go, this is on a par with the revelation six years ago from John Lewis that bowls — good for noodles — are replacing actual dinner plates. Again a bleak civilisational moment; you cannot eat a Sunday roast or bacon and eggs out of a bowl.
Look, at this rate, we’re going to end up eating out of boxes — delivered to our doors — rather than off ceramic tableware at all. And that would be a retrograde move. There are some things that enhance the quality of life far beyond their cost. A saucer is one of them. You can buy a china cup and saucer in a charity shop for three quid. Try it, and see.