What's on the table
Needless to say, Matt gets in a flap about the cutlery. "I do know you're supposed to start on the outside and work in. It's incredibly embarrassing when you have to be given another fork because you've already used it."
Extraordinary, the things people worry about.
• If you're interested — you're supposed to start with the cutlery on the outside and work in. But why not make a point of getting it wrong?
• It is so much more plain and square and English if the pudding spoon and fork are laid across the top of the place setting rather than everything at the side, which is somehow characterless, international and restaurant.
• Why not keep cutlery in short supply so that your visitors have to use the same knife and fork throughout? This is the way at Zoe's place where guests always feel at home.
• Something to wipe your mouth with is not daintiness but essential. Only the house mates in Big Brother are content to do without. If you have to have cloth napkins, the unironed and threadbare (but clean) variety is best. Otherwise, kitchen paper is perfect.
• If you have anything that might be called a table decoration, throw it away. Apart from candles. "We were given some weird china flowers in baskets for a wedding present," says Matt. "But somebody knocked them on the floor." What a mercy!
• Put the wine and water in bottles on the table and leave the guests to get on with it.
Whatever you do, don't call it that. At Zoe's there is never a seating plan. Matt has one but it gets lost or is misremembered. But people like a seating plan. It relieves them of responsibility. Also, you don't have couples sitting next to each other, the sexes in separate clumps, the shy guests marginalised.
• If you're really clever, you can memorise a thoughtful arrangement and get guests into their places without fuss, glossing over what might otherwise seem stage-managed. It is better to say, "Would you like to sit... ?" rather than "You’re sitting... " Name places or a diagram openly consulted by the hosts if there are just six or eight make too much of a meal of it.
• At very large sit-down dos, the seating plan needs to be displayed in visual form near the door. Otherwise guests are scrabbling around looking for their places.
"We're always telling people to start as soon as they're served," says Matt, "but they never do." Strangely, it would be a different story if he had Mrs Gibbs to dinner. "In the days before central heating, food was always stone-cold by the time you'd waited politely for everybody to be served. I've a horror of it. I always wire in straight away, whether invited to or not."
• Why not get the beauty of it hot? If you're invited to begin (ignore that last remark of Mrs Gibbs's), begin.
• When slow eaters say, "Don't wait for me," they should be obeyed. Hosts can then get on with doling out 'seconds'.
Table manners were the worst of old manners. Excessive daintiness with the napkin, tipping the soup plate away from the person, spooning the soup away from the person, constantly offering to pass dishes, water, salt to your neighbour — if anyone did all this now, we’d think they were mental. But still the shadow persists. Even quite young people react with a gasp of guilt when asked to pass something — as if they should have noticed what was needed in the first place. People are worried about their table manners.
• No need to feel guilty if asked to pass something. You don't have to sit there in a heightened state of alert, thinking only of others.
• No need to feel awkward about asking for something to be passed.
• Pick up bones in your fingers — but avoid dog-like gnawing.
• It is quite all right to mop up sauce or oil from your plate with a piece of bread, a practice once thought revoltingly foreign, but now a compliment to the cook.
• You can put your elbows on the table.
Nasty eating habits
"I'm quite happy to say goodbye to all that nonsense about how to hold your knife and fork," Mrs Gibbs says, "but I don't care for people talking with their mouths full, which is what my great-nieces do, of course, and a lord I once came across — who you would have thought would know better." Her great-nieces also "have the most extraordinary way of eating generally. Their faces are practically in the plate, the fork is lined up right in front of their mouths so that the food can be loaded straight in — all very convenient, no doubt, but really I'd rather watch a dog eat." This, of course, is how Zoe eats. It's a consequence of living in flat shares where you pick from the fridge, or eat standing up or sitting in front of the TV.
• It isn't agreeable sitting next to someone who talks with their mouth full or who has unpleasant eating habits.
• Unfortunately, only an intimate can point this out — and should do so. That is what intimates are for.
Food stuck on the face
"It's incredibly embarrassing when someone gets a bit of food stuck on their face," says Matt. Yes, isn't it. Here's what you do:
• Use your own napkin or piece of kitchen paper to scrub quietly but persistently at the same part of your own face. Shortly, you will find your co-diner doing the same to their own face — quite unconsciously. It always works like magic.
Do we mention the food?
In old manners the rule was that no mention should be made of the food, let alone compliments offered. But there was a reason for this. Mrs Bridges or her equivalent produced very dull food and it was always the same. Dinner in one house was more or less identical to dinner in another. There was no point in mentioning it.
Today it is different but people still don't know what to do. Matt worries. "Will it just sound polite? Just going through the motions? And what if it's really horrible?" He is, of course, thinking of that mackerel in cold tea again.
• Always mention the food but don't worry — you don't have to be insincere. Producers of inedible food aren't that bothered anyway and won't notice that appreciation is no more than polite.
• Where genuine enthusiasm can be expressed, it should be. Good cooks will accept lukewarm praise as fair comment.
• Cooks — don't apologise for a mistake unless you are prepared for the guests to agree.
• Perhaps as a result of the mackerel trauma, Matt developed a habit of offering fulsome praise before he had taken a mouthful — until a sharp-eyed hostess caught him out one day. Don't follow this example.
• Where the dinner is bought in (or BI to use the correct expression), the hosts should declare this and not expect compliments, although to offer them would not be wrong. Don’t, under any circumstances, attempt to pass off BI as your own; you’re bound to be exposed sooner or later, as Linda Snell was in The Archers, when Eddie Grundy got into her kitchen and found the boxes.
Unless all the guests are wine snobs, or the dinner has been especially convened for the purpose (in which case most of us wouldn’t be there), wine talk should be kept to a minimum. Nothing more ghastly than one dinner where one of the guests insisted not just on bringing all the wine herself but also on grilling the other diners imperiously about it. Anybody unable to identify a particular wine was condemned as not fit to drink it.
Guests, and hosts for that matter, should not get drunk but intermittently they do. You can try withdrawing the supply, but some guests are not above shrilly demanding more once they've got going. Then what do you do?
• Either strategically ignore requests for more.
• Or become expert at using the operation of pretending to refill the glass as a cover for actually whisking it away.
Breakages must be paid for
Usually, it's as bad as it possibly could be. A friend of mine, taken to meet his girlfriend's family for the first time, thought he would be helpful. Carrying the sauce-boat into the kitchen, he somehow managed to slip. The sauce-boat flew backwards, into the dining room. The grandmother only got her new glasses whipped off and smashed to the ground. But the rather frightening mother of the girlfriend was less fortunate. In addition to being well coated in sauce, she sustained a black eye. And, on landing, the missile, of course, crashed into and destroyed the vegetable dish which was part of the best dinner service which had been in the family for generations, had been given to the great-grandparents as a wedding present etc...
Almost a thousand pounds' worth of damage was done, not including any claims for injury or psychological trauma. What was my friend to do? Sit down and write a cheque there and then? One approach, unfortunately not possible on this occasion, was demonstrated by Dixon in Lucky Jim. He burnt a huge hole in a blanket while staying overnight at his boss's house; so he stuffed it into the airing cupboard and hoped for the best. But only a few days later the boss's wife was booming down the telephone, demanding an explanation.
• Always offer to pay if you break or damage something. The offer should always be refused.
• If guests break things, it is never their fault — often it really isn't. There's a loose floorboard you ought to have fixed months ago or the table wobbles or you've put something in a silly place where it’s bound to get knocked over.
• Hosts should live with the risk of china and glass (especially) getting broken. If it's unspeakably priceless and it would kill you if it got broken, don't use it.
Excerpted from To The Manner Born: A Most Proper Guide to Modern Civility by Thomas Blaikie. Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Blaikie. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.