The magazine Country Life has just delivered a left and a right for this shooting season: an update on etiquette when it comes to talking dirty at the modern table, and a ten-point primer on the new rules of dining.
I disagree with almost all of it and have therefore provided a bonus box of my dinner party rules as a side-dish to this main course, which concerns this shock new edict from the shires: talking about sex over dinner is acceptable, but talking about politics and religion is still taboo. Ladies and gentlemen, I beg to differ.
Call me old fashioned, but I was brought up to believe that those who talked most about sex were as tinkling cymbals – such people, we were told, they were always the ones having the least sex. A little less conversation, a little more action, as Elvis had it.
Speaking as a regular hostess of Notting Hill kitchen kuppers as well as occasional kountry kuppers on Exmoor what we certainly don’t want is couples talking loudly in a social setting about their own sex lives, discussing the fact that they schedule Sunday mornings for the “maintenance shag”, or anything in that vein. Shudder! TMI!
I would also hope to shut down any conversation which publicised what someone else – who is not present to defend themselves - was like in bed. I like to believe that a gentleman never tells and Trumpian banter is best kept to the locker room (although men would shrivel if they heard how women can talk about them when it comes to performance, equipment, and so on).
Relationships are eternally interesting, but talking or writing about the barnyard mechanics of actual sex isn’t. It’s coarse, and it writes yuk on the page, I would know, as I won the Bad Sex in Fiction Award (my only literary prize to date).
What I don’t mind hearing is people ruefully admitting their sex lives aren’t very exciting (far more relatable) and moving the conversation on to other people’s sex lives, which are always far more interesting. I am so tuned to gossip that, like a bat, I can detect a juicy, weapons-grade anecdote from twelve places away.
In an ideal world, I’d be cheering on Jilly Cooper regaling the throng about pegging, as she did at a recent lunch party for her new book Tackle!; or Lady Anne Glenconner issuing her own expert verdict on any rumours about the love lives of our Princes of the Blood. Now, that’s not emetic – it’s entertainment.
I have a friend –a very well-known former politician who refuses to let me name him – who told me that as an undergraduate at Oxford he was invited to a ball at Trinity College, Dublin. At the black-tie dinner he was placed next to a raving Irish beauty his own age.
“So,” he opened with. “What do you like doing?” he asked over the starter.
“F---ing,” she replied (punchy answer, you’ll agree).
“I thought, wow, if this is how grown-up life is going to be from now on, it’s going to be great!” he told me over the weekend, with a cast-down expression as he chucked the ball again for his dog and trudged back home to his toddlers.
As for the other do’s and don’ts that Country Life lists, a few brief thoughts. Country Life says you still can’t talk about politics and religion. Well, what I say to that is: big deal. We have long observed the convention in the Johnson family that we don’t talk about the two hot button topics, politics and money, at mealtimes (and if I had a pound for every person who has said “I’d love to be a fly on the wall at Sunday lunch/Christmas dinner in the Johnson house,” as if we all live under one roof like the Waltons…) We talk about family and what we’ve been doing. We’re very disappointing.
And I’m not keen on this idea of Gloucestershire half-change – a velvet smoking paired with chinos and even trainers – as alternate men’s evening attire.
At Castle Howard, Saturday night is always black tie. Sometimes, formality is reassuring. You know where you are. I never know who to turn to first but as dinner gets underway, take your cue from Vicky or Nick Howard presiding over each end of the table.
I’ll just end by saying I would far rather everyone had a jolly raucous time talking about sex, with much shouting and laughter, than some strained Fulham dinner party in a cheerless dining room where a total stranger asks you what all your children are doing. Or asks, “so what keeps you busy” which is the hideous new euphemism for the laziest question of all, which is “what do you do?”
And if someone does bang on about sex thanks to Country Life’s recent relaxation of the rules, I offer this final tip.“Everything in life is about sex,” you quote with a wry expression, “except sex, which is about power.”
I find it always shuts people up.
My 10 dinner party rules
1. Don’t always have just a suburban, even number consisting of only couples
2. No two dishes should be pastry-based
3. Allow smoking but no phones, children, or drugs at dinner table
4. Splash out on wine rather than the food – the template here is Lord Archer’s annual shepherd’s pie and Krug party
5. Aim for cosy, with candles, flowers, fires, dogs
6. Encourage dancing – a cry of “Alexa, play You See the Trouble with Me by Black Legend/Blurred Lines” always gets the party started
7. Never ask in advance about guests’ dietaries – if they have a fatal nut allergy or are vegan trust me, they’ll tell you
8. Never ask anyone “so what do you do” unless of course they are an incredibly famous actor or household name like Nigella or Tony Blair in order to annoy them
9. Encourage gen-con (general conversation) it’s far more fun than talking about Common Entrance with someone’s wife
10. Never try to persuade people to stay late if they want to go – nothing beats bed.