What to do if you’re placed next to someone tiresome at dinner17th June 2019
Very very late as usual. Sorry, was in the recording studio last week croaking my way through the audio version of What Happens Now? I suspect I am going to sound very nasal-y towards the end (had a bad cold), and if you DO listen to it when it’s out (THE 22ND AUGUST HAVE I MENTIONED THIS?) then please please please forgive my execrable Australian accent which weirdly came out more Scottish.
Anyway, here is Sun Tel column from the weekend before last…
You could see it on Princess Anne’s face. Beneath that magnificent helmet of hair, there was total ennui. Her stare was unfocused, headed off somewhere in the distance. ‘If I leave now, I can get eight hours sleep, but if I leave after pudding, I’ll only get six,’ she might have been thinking. Such weariness wasn’t hugely surprising. The Princess Royal was at this week’s state banquet, the latest of dozens she’s attended down the years. Yet another evening for which she has to pull out a tiara and make sure she’s collected her blue sash from the dry cleaner. Hard work when there’s so much to watch on telly at the moment and, additionally, there were candlesticks on the Buckingham Palace table with a higher IQ than some of the transatlantic guests she’d have to face.
But there we go. Sometimes you’re seated next to a bore at dinner and you just have to get through it. Small talk is the painful way. How do they know the host, do they have children, are they going anywhere nice this summer? It’s galling to struggle like this if you can hear laughter and snippets of more intriguing conversation elsewhere on the table but reassure yourself that being placed next to a bore might mean you have exceptionally good manners. This was always the case with the Middletons, I was told once. Pippa and Kate were constantly put next to the most tiresome person at dinner because they were so charming.
Alternatively, you can play a little game with your companion. (Men, I’m sorry to say you are often the bore. If you’re worried this could be you, consider this: did you ask the woman you sat next to a single question about herself at the last dinner party you went to? If the answer is no, then she’s probably still telling her friends to avoid you.) A former boss of mine used to lean in, if someone had been talking about themselves for an age, and ask ‘And when did you first realise you were so fascinating?’ They almost never twigged, apparently. They’d simply breeze on; ‘Well, I think it was when I was about eight or nine when I…’
If brave enough, you could call them up on their lack of grace. At a dinner party not so long ago, my step-mother sat next to a chap who only asked her about my father. Where did he go to university, how long was he in banking and so on. Agony. When he ran out of questions about Dad, he looked briefly panicked but then struck on another thought; ‘And what did your first husband do?’ he asked, whereupon my step-mother told him that if husbands were the only thing he wanted to chat about, she’d talk to her other side.
Or, if you’ve run out of options and are still stuck, why not follow the example of the Victorian guest who went to Wentworth Woodhouse one weekend and was placed next to its owner, the dour 6th Earl of Fitzwilliam. Grinding to a conversational halt yet again, she picked up a silver spoon and held it in front of him: ‘Which reflection do you prefer of yourself: the convex or the concave?’ she asked. A useful little tip for us all ahead of the next state banquet we attend.
Oh how I wish I could wink with sass like the Duchess of Cornwall, who demonstrated her perfect winking skills during the Trump’s state visit this week in a clip that went viral online. Whenever I try to wink, the corner of my mouth curls upwards and I look like I’m having some sort of fit. I suspect Camilla is one of those women who could also whistle for a taxi and pick up a spider with her hands to put it outside without a fuss. Just William would absolutely have invited her to be a member of the Outlaws, whereas I might have been teamed with Violet Elizabeth Bott. There are winking tutorial videos on YouTube, should you wish to improve.
I had a minor operation this week, in and out of the Chelsea and Westminster in a day. But I was so grateful to the NHS staff, so determined to show my appreciation, that I found myself being chirpier than Dick van Dyke before going under. I made constant, terrible jokes to demonstrate how obliged I felt and told all the nurses how ‘amazing’ they were multiple times. Was it annoyingly jovial? Were they thinking ‘Quick, get the anaesthetic in her!’ Perhaps, but I’m hoping that I was still less irritating than the man in the recovery room who kept shouting about the delay in getting his tea – ‘Two sugars!’ – and custard creams. I suspect he’d be very tiresome to sit next to at a dinner party indeed.