Knowing the value of Marmite

I’ve nearly finished Marguerite Steen’s book on the Terry acting dynasty. Apart from the fascination of the family, there are interesting sidelights on language and generation. The writer was born in the 1890s and was an actress in the early Twentieth Century. Her actor’s vocabulary intrigues me, being someone who started in the nineteen sixties. I’d always known that earlier professionals said ‘drying up’ for forgetting lines, where we always used ‘drying’. That’s typical of how idioms adjust. It slightly surprises me that she already found it quaint in her elders to say ‘an engagement’, where her own generation of actors called it ‘a job’. It was always ‘a job’ — and a job always meant acting.

Theatre aside, she has some telling mid-Twentieth Century expressions. “When a pound was worth a pound” she says once. People used to say this — meaning, no doubt, “when money had about the same purchasing power it had as I was growing up”. A pound, of course, was actually always worth whatever a pound would buy at the time. People of her day were familiar with the idea of inflation over hundreds of years. They read with awe that a house once cost a few hundred pounds. They had not yet, but we were all about to, experience inflation within our own short-term spending experience. What I call the Economic History of Marmite. In the flat in Belsize Park where I lived in the ‘seventies, people kept buying jars of Marmite — which last for ages — and forgetting it was in the cupboard. Thus one kitchen shelf held a row of identical jars, stickered with the rising price of Marmite.

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Roger Sansom

Roger is an actor, and lives with his family in Greater London