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Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Friday, 28 August 2009 14:48 UK

Early dinner

Fried egg

For a lower-middle class boy from Liverpool, a plate of egg and chips at five o'clock was not the done thing, recalls Laurie Taylor in his weekly column.

It was the egg and chips which first made me realise that Jim lived in a different world.

We'd gone back to his terrace house in Bootle one day after school and were sitting at the table in the back room when his dad came home from a long shift on the railways. I remember him saying "Hello" as he saw his son and me at the table but he then vanished into the tiny kitchen.

Laurie Taylor
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Jim and I went on chatting for a few minutes about school and Liverpool's chances in the coming Saturday game until suddenly his dad re-appeared and without a single word placed a big plate of egg and chips and a steaming sugary mug of tea in front of each of us.

The egg and chips were delicious. No doubt about it. And the tea was just great. But even as I followed Jim's example and finger dipped my chips in the runny yolk I felt confused by their sudden appearance.

Had Jim exchanged some hidden sign with his dad that said he was ready for egg and chips and tea? And why had I been automatically included? And why had it been so readily assumed that I wanted or even liked egg and chips? And why had no one even asked how much sugar I wanted in my mug of tea? And why, come to think of it, were we so happily wading into such a substantial meal at just after five in the afternoon?

Of course, the answer to all these questions was quite straightforward. Jim and his dad were working class. And members of the working class at that time thought it completely natural to eat five o'clock in the afternoon. But even more, as members of the working class they took it for granted that everyone else ate at that time and would happily regard egg and chips and tea as the perfect meal for the occasion.

Terraced life

How different from my own dear lower middle-class home where eating a heavy meal in the late afternoon would have been regarded as dangerously close to a satanic rite. Neither would my mother have ever tolerated egg and chips on her dinner table, or, even, in her wildest dreams, have allowed any member of the family to accompany any meal at all with a mug of steaming tea.

Reading Hoggart did make me wonder why not one of my Bootle friends had ever expressed any personal pleasure at the way they lived their lives

The more time I spent with Jim the more I came to realise the taken-for-granted aspect of so much of the terraced life around him. In Jim's road everyone seemed to smoke Woodbines, read the Daily Mirror, take coach trips to Blackpool to see the lights, have a regular flutter on the horses, eat tins of assorted biscuits, drink mild and bitter ("mixed"), and finish off any evening out with a bag of fish and chips. No-one I knew in my road in Crosby did any of these things.

I realised, of course, that it was hard cash which determined some of these choices, but I also sensed that everybody did much the same as everybody else because that was a way of saying that you weren't too posh or stuck up or different.

When I went on from school to college in Kent and began to talk in this way about working class life in Liverpool I was accused of being sentimental and romantic. My new friends pointed out the sins of the working class - their drunkenness and violence and sexism.

At the time I was snobbish enough to accept much of this argument. I began to wonder how I could ever have seen life in Bootle as somehow worth celebrating.

But at the end of my first year I came across a copy of Richard Hoggart's Uses of Literacy. I read every word, placing ticks in the margin to record the similarities between life in my Bootle and his Hunslet. And I insisted on reading out chunks to my snooty new friends. Compare this, I said imperiously, with your own isolated, miserable, bourgeois lives.

But reading Hoggart did make me wonder why not one of my Bootle friends had ever expressed any personal pleasure at the way they lived their lives. Had they been no more able than I was to see its great strength and vitality? And then one day in the early 70s I heard the perfect answer.

The Liverpool sculptor, Arthur Dooley, was talking on the radio about the destruction of even more Liverpool terraces. The architect who was responsible for this latest bout of demolition sought to justify his action by telling Dooley that not one of the residents had complained about being moved out to the new tower block estates on the edges of the city.

Dooley was not convinced. "Let me tell you this," he said in his strong Liverpool accent, "there's no-one as easy to rob of their culture as those folks that don't know they've got one."

Here is a selection of your comments.

My mother came from a strong working-class background and chips and egg were at staple part of our diet in the 1980s, eaten between 5-6pm. I've always found it shocking that people turn their noses up and such delights. Clearly they don't know what they're missing out on. Chips and egg always remind me of that scene in the film Shirley Valentine: classic.
Jonathan Taylor, Bury, Lancs, UK

Jim's life in Bootle sounds very similar to my upbringing, although my mother made it very clear that I wasn't to talk about eating "tea" at 5pm (it was "dinner", not "tea") outside of the house. In an example of this, on one occasion, when I was about seven or eight years old, my mother and I went to visit a friend of her's and we stayed for tea (egg and chips!) and there was bread and butter on the table to go with it. When it came to clearing up I innocently asked, "should I leave the bread on the table" and when asked why, I replied "well, for pudding". In our house "pudding" was very often bread and butter with jam. My mother was mortified and made lots of noises about me being "silly" and "fanciful" and "I don't know where she came up with that one!". I, completely unaware at my faux pas, protested vehemently and got a spanking for my trouble.

Nowadays I eat "dinner" between 7-8pm and only have "tea" when I go to my friends' houses. I suppose my mother's attitude must have rubbed off on me more than I realised.
Charlie Boyd, Edinburgh

I couldn't help but notice that the fried egg in the picture had been given a middle-class makeover. Rather than chips and brown sauce it is served on wholemeal bread, accompanied by mushrooms and sprinkled with black pepper. La-de-da.
John, Glasgow, Scotland

The 5pm "tea" (on a weekly rota, I especially fondly remember the jacket spuds and corned beef with iceberg lettuce/cucumber/tomato salad on a Thursday) at my grandparents was timed because it was just after my Granddad had got in from a hard days "graft" and was ravenous. It makes sense, he would be heading to bed at about 9pm for a 5am start so eating later would lead to indigestion and a poor sleep. I often think my husband and I eat too late now and would prefer to eat earlier.
Rachel, Derby

This article reminds me of the linguistic nuances of growing up in London in the 80s and 90s: the kids on the estates used to refer to both lunch and the evening meal as "dinner"; the lounge (as it was to me) was the "front room"; at home was "indoors".
Karl Chads, London

Growing up, I was always given my tea (evening meal) at around the 5-6pm time, a time I thought was very natural for tea. I then moved in with friends from south Liverpool who thought it was very uncouth to dinner at this hour. I now starve myself until later in the evening to fit in.
Ian, Liverpool, UK

Sweetened tea actually makes me sick, but egg and chips was my favourite meal when we had it at home(a once a week treat in my house). However I was a bit shocked when invited to a friend's house and fed the same meal to find that, unlike my mother who used vegetable oil cooled, strained and filtered back into a bottle kept in the fridge, my friend's family allowed the fat to solidify in a pan which they kept on the cooker and simply reheated every night. The food tasted just fine but ... yuk.
Deborah, Hampshire, UK

When I was five, back in 1969, my wealthy middle class family had some sort of crisis which prevented anyone from getting me from school, so I was met by their cleaner Mrs O'D - who took me back to her house, put me in her garden with a football (a treat for a girl) and then brought out fried egg, chips and a cup of sweet tea. "Poor mite," she said, "they jus don't feed your proper."

It was wonderful - food completely banned at home, plus a football. My mother utterly disapproved, but the automatic kindness of Mrs O'D and that delicious meal has long stayed with me. I knew it was a different world - and I knew too, that "ours" wasn't better then hers either.
Chris, Bath

My father stoked boilers at a coal pit - but on summer evenings we went on family walks in a local park or nearby countryside. My sister and I felt socially deprived because we couldn't sit on the pub steps waiting for crisps and lemonade like our pals - while the air was filled with the sound of the piano and singing - and the "madeleine" smell of beer and cigarette smoke.
ChrisJK, UK

I am "working class", at least I used to be. Grew up in a council house on a rough estate that's been pulled down now, and thank god for that. It's very easy to see the romance in a life style that you are not required to take part in, unless you want to. Of course there is a "culture" but it is not always a good one. Working class environments can be choiceless, hopeless and dark, with few ways out.

I would like to know what happened to Jim? Did he go to college? Get to debate cultural and bourgeois issues? I was lucky enough to pass the 11+ and work my way out of a lifestyle that none of my family willingly stayed within, once they had a choice. Choice is the key, and being "middle class", with all the baggage the term carries with it, gave more choice than a traditional working class life. I think its funny that so many people carry on about how wonderful the old working class lifestyle was, but so very few people want to live it.
Lyn, Maidstone, UK

Five o'clock tea - egg and chips and a mug of tea perfectly sum up what life was like growing up in working class Liverpool. Tea time was governed by my fathers arrival at home which you could set the clock by, after his walk home from the factory. We used to stand at the front door of our terraced house, look up the long road and once we saw Dad appear in the distance, give the signal to Mum to get the chip pan on. Yes, we all had tea at 5 o'clock in our road, we had never heard of having a meal later than this, and as for calling it "dinner"...
Val Monaghan, North Wales

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