A Tinkling Symbol

When the Prime Minister made his sojourn to Scotland last week (former First Minister Henry McLeish called it a “safari”), he inevitably commented on the possibility, or otherwise, of a second Scottish Independence referendum.  Some people think the sole purpose of the visit was to make such comment.  He said that wishing for a second referendum was like not caring what you eat, so long as you eat it with a spoon.

Aside from the spoon remark, Mr Johnson visited troops setting up a vaccination centre in Glasgow’s Castlemilk, and he went to Livingston to visit a pharmaceutical company preparing a new Covid vaccine.  The current First Minister was “not ecstatic” about the PM’s trip.  She might have reiterated the words often seen on billboards during the war: “Is your journey really necessary?”  In Castlemilk, the PM touched elbows with a soldier.  I am puzzled by this social nicety.  You can’t touch elbows and stay two metres apart.

I have been worrying over the spoon simile all week.  What could the PM possibly have meant?  What do the blind table d’hôte, and the choice of cutlery, signify?  Wondering if the analogy were some hackneyed cliché that has heretofore escaped my notice, I consulted the Millennium Edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable.  I looked up “spoon”.  Apparently a spoon is a simpleton, particularly one who is “spoony” in an amorous or sentimental way.  Perhaps Mr Johnson was implying that the Scots are sentimental about a culture, and nationhood, that no longer exists, if it ever existed at all, save on the lid of a shortbread tin, and that, left to their own devices, the Scots would open the tin, find it empty, and so they would have nothing to eat. 

On the other hand, you can be born – perhaps like Mr Johnson – with a silver spoon in your mouth.  This refers to the tradition of godparents gifting a silver spoon to a new-born child.  But there’s no point in having a silver spoon, if there’s nothing to eat.

There are various types of spoon.  There is the runcible spoon, and there is the wooden spoon.

They dined on mince and slices of quince

Which they ate with a runcible spoon.

The Owl and the Pussycat, Edward Lear (1871).

I gather from Chambers that quince is a globose, or pear-shaped fruit of the tree Cydonia oblonga, akin to the Japanese quince, Chaenomeles japonica, and somewhat different from Bengal quince, the bael-fruit of the tree Aegle marmelos.  Quince apparently makes good marmalade.  I have never knowingly tasted it.  “Runcible” is a nonsense word, but Chambers ventures to suggest a runcible spoon might be a sharp-edged, broad-pronged pickle fork.  But how useful would such an instrument be in the consumption of mince and quince? 

Then there is the wooden spoon – a booby prize, originally for the student who came last in the Cambridge mathematical tripos.  How cruel is that?  I sincerely hope the recipients ate their mince and quince with it, with pride.  The great Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy thought the competitive tripos system of cramming set back Cambridge mathematics by 150 years. 

Then there is the spoonerism, or metathesis.  One ludicrous juxtaposition comes to mind: pungent shafts of wit.  Mr Johnson has a reputation for passing remarks which some people find hilarious, others, deeply offensive.

Does any of this bring us any nearer to understanding Mr Johnson’s strange simile?  I think we must conclude that in this case the spoon assumes a kind of talismanic significance beyond its mundane utility, rather like the Stone of Scone, which is nothing more than a slab of rock; but because the Scottish monarchs were crowned upon it, it acquired mystic significance by virtue of what the Antiques Roadshow experts call “provenance”.  It was removed to Westminster, much as – some would say – the Elgin Marbles were removed to the British Museum.  (The stone plays a cameo role in a remarkable – almost Shakespearian – scene in the film The King’s Speech.)  Then in the early 50s an intrepid quartet of Scottish undergraduates removed it from Westminster Abbey and brought it home.  Currently (so far as we know) it is in Edinburgh Castle.  I have seen it, but I have also seen a replica in Scone Castle so who knows?  Maybe there are scores of stone slabs all over the British Isles claiming its identity.  “I’m Spartacus!”  Where were we?  Ah yes, the Spoon of Scone.  This runcible might also be compared with the Scottish Crown jewels, or Honours of Scotland.  After the Treaty of Union of 1707, the Scottish crown, sword of state and sceptre were seen as potent symbols of Scottish independence, and accordingly they were “disappeared”.  Sir Walter Scott was instrumental in rediscovering them, sequestered in a strongbox behind the locked doors of the Crown Room in Edinburgh Castle, where they are now on display, the oldest crown jewels in Europe.     

Mr Johnson’s spoon, it seems to me, is a kind of lampoon of a symbol of Scottish nationhood, which sentimental and gullible Scots will fall for, irrespective of the hard economic realities that will, or will not, put bread on the table.  When Oliver Twist, desperate with hunger after the pitifully inadequate serving of gruel, rose from his place and advanced to his master to ask for more, he had a basin and a spoon in his hand. 

I believe the spoon comment is Mr Johnson’s initial salvo marking his resolve to campaign for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party in the run-up to the Holyrood elections in May.  Whether his involvement will be welcomed by the party, whether his participation will be efficacious or detrimental to his cause, remains to be seen. 

But watch out for more spoonerisms.      

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