Except shortly after bidding our parents’ dinner party guests goodnight, we would all be sat on the stairs, the four of us arranged on steps in order of age, the oldest – me – nearest the door to listen to the clinking of the special occasion glassware, the chitter-chatter, the gossip, the rude jokes, the laughter and the ever-more drunken roars and shrieks until Dad would rev up the hifi for the soundtrack to the hippy musical Hair!, which really did seem like the moment for we kids to go in search of our teddy bears.
My parents loved hosting these soirees and we loved the excitement and glamour of them. Dad would put on a cravat and Mum would look fabulous in floor-length polka dots – her dinner party dress. We’d watch the meal’s creation – coq au vin was a favourite. On the stairs in whispers we’d discuss the guests, the best-dressed and the funniest, and wait for the first of them to start to slur and repeat themselves. And in the morning we’d rush downstairs and hope to find the remnants of the After Eights in the sitting-room and the last of the lemon meringue pie in the fridge.
So it goes without saying that if my parents were still around they’d be appalled that in a new survey 80 per cent consider the dinner party passe. Sitting down to eat with friends still happens but the event is shed of all formality and tradition and can no longer be called an event. You don’t dress up, there’s no need to bring a bottle and something microwaved is perfectly fine.
How has it come to this? A fatal combination of Covid turning us anti-social and the cost-of-living crisis making us poor? Well, those who curse that lockdown ever happened are, like the libertine columnist the other day, convinced it has reduced the country to “a nation of neurotics who still cling to their homes”.
And the financial aspect is surely indisputable – with food prices currently rising at their fastest rate for 45 years who can afford, for the purposes of entertaining, even a box of Twiglets? (This news just in: production of the popular pre-prandial munchie has been hit by strike action. There may not be any on supermarket shelves for Christmas.)
Then there’s the stress aspect. Thinking back to my parents’ dinner parties they won’t have been fun and laughter all the way. They would have involved a heck of a lot of pressure for my mother who did all of the cooking.
My father moved in arty circles – once the four of us were asked about our scholastic prospects by Alasdair Milne, then the BBC’s Controller in Scotland and later Director-General; another guest was the author Joan Lingard who would incidentally come to live in our old flat in Edinburgh’s Great King Street, the setting for these wing-dings – and because mass tourism had opened up the world there would have been competition among party hostesses for recreating the most exciting and exotic foreign dishes. Our parents did employ au pairs who might have been able to help in the kitchen, but I’m ashamed to say that we kids terrorised them and none ever stuck around long enough.
It’s easy to see why the potential for dinner parties going horribly wrong has been exploited by writers and film-makers. From Banquo’s ghost to Bridget Jones’ blue soup, the dramatic and comedic possibilities are endless.
The ultimate hostess from hell is generally considered to be Beverly Moss in the Mike Leigh telly classic Abigail’s Party although she didn’t actually provide a meal, the party in the title referring to the daughter of one of Beverly’s neighbours who’s never seen. Bev, though, served up cheese and pineapple on sticks, red wine from the fridge, Demis Roussos, flirting with her married male guest, dancing on the shagpile, social pretension, suburban awfulness and to top it all off, hounded her poor, wimpish husband Laurence into a heart attack, carelessly flicking cigarette ash on his body as it chilled, like the wine, in the middle of room.
Abigail’s Party was broadcast in 1977 which might have been the apotheosis of the Twiglet, the moment that Britain achieved peak dinner party. Successive generations will always want to do their own thing, and I’m guessing that many of the respondents of that survey are not even the children of those early pioneers, the first in their streets to invite friends to watch them narrowly avoid incinerating the house with a fondue set. They will be younger, even less in thrall to the traditions of the past, more informal still, jeans acceptable and in fact a requirement.
At the riotous shindigs hosted by my mother-in-law and her late husband, it was dinner suits and fancy frocks. For a wedding present they were given a book to keep a record of those invited, what they ate, the wittiest anecdotes, the most outrageous confessions, and soon needed three additional volumes.
A favourite memory is of the man and woman who’d arrived with their respective partners but quickly caught each other’s eye. The seating plan impeded hopes of them continuing their flirting during the meal so, grabbing handfuls of tangerines, they ducked under the table. It was some considerable time later when they re-emerged – but wearing each other’s clothes.
Now, doesn’t that sound like a fun night?