They were the very best of hosts. Oh the attention to detail. Our every need anticipated. Catered for. Gins on the deck to begin. A carefully curated display of small snacks. A fan of tastefully designed serviettes, to dab salty fingers and press upon greasy lips. Music not too loud, not too low, not too swift, not too slow. Called to the table, all beautifully laid. Help yourselves. Dig in. Heaving platters of pasta. One, two, three salads. Matchy matchy wine. A sweet tart after.
We were the very worst of guests. Too much to drink. Too much to say. Host making desperate eyes at hostess. Our smallest hysterical with fatigue. Time to go, said my husband. They cleaned up around me. On and on I blathered until half-dragged from that table. Our smallest passed out on the floor of the hall. The host taken himself off to bed.
Barbecues are to summer what dinner parties are to winter. On a whim versus booked in. Loose versus starched. The apogee, I thought as a child, of grown-up life. My parents were forever throwing dinner parties. Days of planning. Hours of preparation. My mother thumbing through her grubby copy of Claudia Roden's A Book of Middle Eastern Food. Layering leaves of filo with honey and ground pistachio for baklava. Heaping the three-tiered, wooden lazy susan that had been a wedding present with little piles of purple olives and green dolmades, pita triangles and garlicky hummus. Hummus … I mean, hello!
Supposedly in bed, I was, in fact, watching through a crack in the door. Memorising menus. Filing away awkwardnesses. Tasked with writing a short story at school, I wrote about a man, short and rubicund, who stormed out of a dinner party after he caught his wife playing footsie with another guest, tall and handsome. Did you make this up, asked my teacher. Maybe … I trailed off. Dinner parties, I understood, were formal occasions where so much could go wrong. I couldn't wait to throw my own.
At 16 my parents left me home alone while they went on a holiday I had refused to join them on. I invited my friend, her architecture school boyfriend, and several of his mates over for fettucine with creamy chicken and avocado. It was vile. A bowl of glug. The 57 tealights I'd lit did nothing to hide my zits. An antique chest got damaged. My first flat was famous for its dinner parties. My flatmates cooked beef wellington and potato dauphinoise. This is it, I thought. I've made it. And chundered all night long. When my husband and I moved in together I immediately set to fulfilling my host-with-the-most fantasies. I proudly presented a risotto of mango, ginger and salmon. It's fusion, I explained to my stunned guests, of the fishy, bright orange rice pudding on their plates.
My grandmother, who is almost 102 and hails from a small, churchgoing town, is mildly perplexed by the idea of inviting friends to dinner. We didn't do it, she says. You might have had people over for afternoon tea, but never to dinner. I wonder if it's because they knew that while tea and club sandwiches lend themselves to polite conversation, beneath a dinner party's veneer of decorum lies the potential for wicked disaster.
Royalty, literary festivals, adulation: last week I attempted to weave all this together. According to Graeme I failed miserably. "I am struggling to see the point of your article, Megan. Either I am thick or you are using it to have a crack (passive/aggressive) at royalty. Get over it." Delwyn says I misunderstood why people are excited by a royal wedding. "For many people it is about love. And the generosity of well-wishing. And just maybe a public display of a family party can depict that love unites."
Nigel says the younger generation of royals has softened his stance; however he'll never be a fan. "I think it's a fascination conservatives have … The same people who love the royals appear to have a disdain for writers and intellectuals." Robert was more interested in discussing literary festivals. "I went to be inspired for my own writing but also to shake the hand of Margaret Mahy and thank her for making reading at night to my children such a pleasurable and fun occasion. I was shocked how many people were only interested in telling her what story she should next write about. I shook her hand briefly, breathed a thank you, and was pushed out of the way by another forthright critic."