My mother ventured out for drinks in Sussex last week. ‘Lucy!’ cried a friend’s husband. ‘How are you? You obviously haven’t managed to get to a hairdresser, but you look so well!’ Apparently everyone else instantly keeled over with laughter, whereupon the poor chap realised what he’d said and remained stricken all evening (he has to remain anonymous for his own protection; the ruthlessness of the social circuit in West Sussex will be familiar to anyone who’s watched Goodfellas).
There’s been much discussion in recent weeks about our physical appearance. After four months, the agreed view seemed to be that evolution had swung into reverse and most of us could have taken up full-time positions in the gorilla enclosure at London Zoo. But I’m not sure that it’s our hair alone which needs brushing up. Dare I say it, might our manners need a little bit of improvement, too?
It’s not just our friend in Sussex whose people skills have abandoned him. In the past few weeks, as social activity has started rising, I’ve observed problems elsewhere. During my first restaurant outing, I watched my friend scrape her finger through the pot of cheese dip as if she was eating at home on the sofa by herself. On Saturday, driving to stay with friends in Oxfordshire, I completely forgot the need to take some sort of present and panic bought three bags of Percy Pigs in Beaconsfield services. This week, having dinner in a someone else’s garden, I sat yawning loudly at the table like Rip van Winkle, my body unable to understand why it was still upright beyond 9pm. What even is small talk? Can anyone remember?
‘How are you?’ someone would ask back in the old days, before March, and we all knew it was illegal to answer the question with anything other than ‘very well, thanks. And you?’ Except now, when someone asks the same, it sounds almost boastful to say ‘very well.’ I’ve developed the habit of puffing out my cheeks and sighing before replying ‘Alright,’ and the other person will generally do the same, before we stand there blinking nervously at one another. Do we embark on a heavy discussion about the pandemic and whether this winter is going to be like another series of Game of Thrones, or do we revert to the weather? The trouble is I find it hard to mind very much about whether it’s going rain on Tuesday given that by then some new drama will have presented itself. Frogs or locusts, no doubt.
How to rectify our lapse in behaviour? It might not be a bad idea to dig out some old Merchant Ivory films, and I wonder if Jacob Rees-Mogg’s nanny Veronica might be persuaded to record daily tutorials on You Tube now that Joe Wicks has announced he’s giving up his PE classes. If you have a copy of Debrett’s, perhaps flick through it, as we all had to on joining Tatler, so we understood that it was polite to eat your pear with your right hand while patting your head with your left. And if you happen to see my mother in Sussex, rest assured that she has now been to the hairdresser so if you feel like commenting positively, go ahead. ‘Blimey, you got your money’s worth!’ always works well, I find.
There was a burst of outrage this week that airlines like Ryanair and co are continuing with their policy of making punters pay to select seats, meaning that families will be separated and beside possibly infected strangers unless they stump up to sit next to one another. If you wish to avoid your children on a flight, can I offer a tip recently offered by a rich and possibly psychologically scarred friend? Just before boarding, his parents used to point him and his siblings towards the economy gangway. ‘There you go,’ they’d say, ‘you go on your plane, and we’ll go on ours, and we’ll all meet up at the end.’ His parents would then saunter down the first-class gangway and sit in peace all flight, their children convinced that they travelled separately until they were really quite old.
As I see it, one of the few benefits of our cloistered summer has been no hens or stags, and also no summer parties. Oh, that endless round of air-kissing and head-swivelling, of sweating into one’s dress and being hungry all evening because there’s disgustingly-sweet Pimm’s but not a single canapé in sight. No wonder, therefore, that the Tory party raised ‘hundreds of thousands’ earlier this month by charging donors £10,000 each to attend a ‘virtual’ summer party on Zoom. For that sum, attendees were sent a ‘special hamper’ containing wine, cheese and chutney and got to hang out behind their computers with Boris and Rishi Sunak (apparently both drinking water) without worrying about what to wear, whether they were ‘mingling’ enough or when they could go home and take their heels off. Sounds cheap at the price to me.