Feasting on the remnants of my edible Christmas presents during the otherwise frugal month of January, I experienced a frisson when I opened the box of Thorntons ‘Continental’ chocolates.
For anyone who grew up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the word ‘Continental’ carries with it a waft of balmy air from the Mediterranean, a sense of longed-for glamour, pleasure and breakfast on a balcony, unavailable on this rainy, cut-off island. I’m wondering whether, as we leave the EU and return to being a small country across the water from a many-countried, warmer landmass, the word ‘Continental’, and the concept, will come back into use. Do other small countries across bodies of water from large continents have this concept? Do Madagascans speak of glamorous items from mainland Africa as ‘Continental’? Do Sri Lankans call Indian things ‘Continental’, or perhaps ‘sub-Continental’?
Of all the Thorntons ranges, the ‘Continental’ selection was always the most enticing. It has (and still has) silhouettes of Milan Cathedral, St Peter’s and the Acropolis round the edge. ‘Inspired by travelling across Europe in search of rich and delicate taste experiences’, Thorntons dreamed up the dark Italian Panforte, the cupcake-like Dutch Speculoos, and the Spanish Turron that comes in squishy white slices. The flavours, I admit, seem rather brash and over-sweet in this age of Rococo and Prestat, but the air of glamour clings on.
Remember the Continental quilt? The Continental breakfast? The Continental tent? How we fantasised! The Continental quilt introduced a whole new way of life in bed: carefree abandon and downy flinging, after centuries of lying rigid under tucked-in sheets and itchy blankets. The Continental breakfast made you imagine you were on honeymoon in Antibes. As for the Continental tent, it had rooms. What a breakthrough from one-bedroom-only tents! Suddenly you could sit in the living-room of your tent and look out of the window while playing Monopoly. To know about these exotic, new-fangled items was a cultural signaller.
Sometimes ‘Continental’ items weren’t all they were cracked up to be. The Continental breakfast, for example, soon became a mere euphemism for a not-cooked breakfast, touted by British hotels to save money. It was a bit dismal, and everyone missed the eggs and bacon. The restaurant I longed to go to in Canterbury in the 1970s was the Continental Grill. Its signature dish was the Mixed Grill: a daunting array of charred pieces of meat, including liver, garnished with one large mushroom and half a grilled tomato. Not quite as Continental as it aspired to be.
Continental pillows were bewildering. There were two kinds: the first were square pillows, which don’t really work, as you have to move your head halfway down the bed to rest on one, causing your feet to stick out at the other end. The other kind, immortalised in Lucian Freud’s painting of his bleak honey-moon in a Paris hotel room with Caroline Blackwood, was the ‘bolster’ pillow, locked under the bottom sheet so you couldn’t easily turn it over for a longed-for blast of coldness in the middle of the night.
As Britain became increasingly integrated into the EU during the 1980s, the adjective ‘Continental’ was superseded by the invented prefix ‘Euro-’. Some of us sighed, wishing that the deadly dull name of the new European currency could have been something more romantic, such as the Continental shilling.
But no — ‘Euro’ took over. The Continental Grill closed down, as did many hotels with that name. In their place came a new global concept: hotels calling themselves the ‘Inter-Continental’. That name had none of the gentle, Riviera charm of ‘Continental’. ‘Inter-Continental’ suggested jetlagged businessmen flying in on Cathay Pacific and ordering shark-fin soup from the room-service menu.
A few hotels called the ‘Continental’ managed to cling on, and still do to this day. Well done them. There’s a Continental Hotel in Hounslow. I visited it last week, and was reminded, once again, of the slight sense of anticlimax when you’ve been building up to the idea of something being Continental. Nothing wrong with this 1970s-built hotel, and the Romanian bar waitress was utterly charming, but the overwhelming sense was of brown: brown carpets, brown armchairs, brown slatted wood walls, and brown padded leather behind the banquettes in the empty restaurant. There’s a Hotel Continental (spot the exotic adjective-after-noun) in Whitstable, whose menu lettering is charmingly 1920s-Agatha Christie.
Realising that the word ‘Continental’ was becoming slightly antiquated, the Continental Hotel in Plymouth changed its name to the New Continental Hotel, and the Bentley Continental (car) changed its name to the Bentley New Continental. Those were canny acts of reinvention, rather like New Labour.
It would be delightful if the prefix ‘Euro-’ could now be phased out entirely in Britain and the word ‘Continental’, without ‘new’ or ‘Inter-’, could make a comeback. We’ve perhaps lost our innocence, though, about how glamorous it all is over there. We now know it’s hypermarkets on the outskirts, strikes on public transport, chewy overpriced steak in town squares, and gridlock on the road from Nice to Cannes. If the word does come back into common usage, it will be proof that we’ve fallen in love with the Continent all over again, in our new semi-detached state.