Ian McMillan: A certain je ne sais quoi that’s beyond definition

The first time we took my grandson Thomas to London he looked around St Pancras’s magnificent station hall and said, with wisdom beyond his years: “I like this; it’s sophisticated,” and to be honest I agreed with him. When you gaze at the statue of John Betjeman and watch the sleek Eurostars slithering to Paris with their wheels creaking in sublime French accents you think: yes, I’ve arrived in a place of some sophistication.

Later, Thomas and I tried to work out what sophistication actually meant; and, to be honest, we struggled. We knew what it was when we saw it but we couldn’t give a dictionary definition. And, let’s face it, the essence of sophistication shifts and changes the older you get and the more experiences (sophisticated or not) you have. We decided that in the end we just liked the word. It sounded good. It sounded grown-up. It sounded thoughtful. It sounded, yes, sophisticated. Then I stood up and knocked the drinks over which sent me rapidly down the sophistication snake when previously I’d been hauling myself painfully up the ladder.

When I was a lad I went to play at my mate Graham’s house and his mam brought us a drink of orange juice and the juice was in a glass jug and the jug was on a tray and the glasses were arranged around the jug on the tray and, as if that wasn’t enough, there were slices of real orange floating around in the juice. I thought I’d arrived at some kind of epicentre of sophistication, been ushered into a room that exuded sophistication like after-shave. His mam was wearing a rainmate because she going to the Co-op but that didn’t matter.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Then, when I got a bit older, I thought it was sophisticated to drink coffee rather than tea. Sadly I couldn’t stand the taste of coffee so I had to have loads of sugar and milk. I may as well have had one of those baby puddings you get the little ones to eat from a plastic spoon. After a while, as I matured in my outlook and stopped wearing my jumper tucked into my slacks, I began to sup the sophisticate’s tipple of choice, the espresso, even though they always taste a bit like a cross between a small electric shock and a headache tablet.

Over the decades so many things have promised sophistication but, to be honest, they haven’t delivered. Pineapple chunks cut into cubes and stuck on a cocktail stick with similar-sized cubes of cheese? Perhaps. A black flat cap worn at an angle that redefines the word “jaunty”? Maybe. Slipping the odd French word into conversation in the chip shop? Peut-être. Listening to solo violin music as you sit in your conservatory and read an improving book from a century that isn’t this one? I’m afraid not. Sporting a cravat? Give it a rest. Wearing sunglasses indoors during a power cut in winter? No. Putting kumquats on your breakfast cereal? Fail. Knowing all the names of the moons of Jupiter? Definitely not.

Ah: writing a column, that’s it! Being a man of letters, a literary geezer. That’s the height of sophistication. Now, where’s that black flat cap and that cravat? Don’t say I’ve chucked them away!