Life is a complex barter system.
You make a cup of tea for someone every day, you make it just the way they like it, you park it on their desk first thing in the morning.
And that person never says anything. They never thank you; they never meet your eyes in a friendly acknowledgement of your gesture. They never make you a reciprocal cuppa. They just take, take, take.
It will not be long before the most saintly of us begin to be a little impatient. The goodwill is so often withdrawn; and a black mark thumbed in the air above that person’s head.
But the smallest return of the favour ensures a friendly working relationship.
In 2008 one of our best science programmes Horizon featured a documentary entitled “How to make better decisions.” It showed that our minds are programmed to make decisions based on some very strange data.
And we don’t even know we’re doing it.
Footage exclusive to the programme demonstrated candidates in job interviews were more likely to get a job if they handed a warm drink to the prospective employer on entering the interview. We’re programmed: something as simple as a mug of warm liquid can predispose us to favour someone.
If only those French aristocrats had known the strength of a little hospitality. What was it the queen said? Let them eat cake?
Actually, it was brioche. Sweet, fluffy bread.
Let them eat brioche, said someone some centuries ago, oblivious to the plight of peasants forced to eat grass and sawdust to stave off starvation.
Whether it was Marie Antoinette is open to some debate. Lady Antonia Fraser argues it was Marie-Therese, wife of Louis XIV. And variants exist elsewhere: there was the Chinese emperor, for example, who when someone told him the peasants had no rice to eat, suggested they eat meat instead.
This is one of those instances, though, when a piece of propaganda – and possible misinformation – expressed the zeitgeist if the time. Inequality and injustice had stalked the streets of Paris for too long. In 1793, the French people beheaded their queen.
End of story: for the queen, but not for the rest of Europe. By the mid 19th century, Europe was in turmoil and revolution rife.
It could have happened in England, too; but for the paternalistic interest which grew among the upper and middle classes in helping those less fortunate than themselves. And nowhere was that interest more passionate than with Prince Albert, the British queen’s husband.
Albert was president of a society which had begun in 1830 to help the working classes. It started modestly with allotments- plots of land where people could grown their own provisions – but went on to become a housing society. It was called the Society for the Improvement of the Condition of the Labouring Classes.
In a speech to the society, Albert told listeners that all men should have “sympathy and interest for that class of our community who have most of the toil and fewest of the enjoyments of this world.” He added it was the “duty of those who, under the blessings of Divine Providence, enjoy station, wealth, and education” to help.
Albert persuaded Victoria that it would be a good idea to hold gatherings to which all levels of society were invited: those who had performed valuable service in their field could be commended with tea and cake.
And so once again, “Let them eat cake” became a byword; but this time, tea and cake were a symbol of how valued every man was in this great Victorian society.
They started as breakfasts; these days, though, they are afternoon tea. Gates open at 3pm and crowds flood in; the Royal family arrives at 4pm. There are three a year, signs that if you work hard and contribute to society, whether you are a commoner or a peer, the Queen will entertain you at Buckingham Palace with cake, and sandwiches, and tea.
Such a small gesture in the life of a nation. It would be preposterous to argue that garden parties prevented revolution.
But little things like the garden parties were a sign of a broader mindset. And it is often the little things, isn’t it? We make our decisions based on comfort so often, disregarding the loftier issues. There’s a wonderful piece of Pathe News footage of her arriving at a garden party as an old woman. Her subjects are clearly delighted she is there with them. Passing the time of day with Everyman was a clear signal of his value.
Victoria insisted on this most civilised of hospitality rituals.She made a lot of mistakes; but she also gave generously to her subjects.
And there was no revolution in 19th century Britain.
Wrutten in response to ide View’s weekend theme, Let Them Eat Cake, which you can find here