The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 26 September

There are many explosive dinner party topics. Do we tread carefully – or unleash merry hell? Thomas Blaikie advises
Dear Thomas,
In view of recent events, do you think discussion of politics and current affairs should be avoided at the dinner table more than ever?
Nadine Hardcastle, Buxton

Dear Nadine,
I write in advance of the great Scottish result and in the midst of much fury. All summer long not just that particular debate but other tragic conflicts have provoked angry and often destructive exchanges. It’s got to a brittle stage where people will get combative about anything. At dinner in my house this week a guest who happens to be Scottish mentioned casually how much he dislikes the southern European practice of shooting small migrating birds.

‘What do you mean?’ exploded another guest. ‘This is trivial when world ecology is threatened.’

Then the shouting began.

There are certain topics about which people never seem to be able to keep their heads. I fear even to mention most of them, but fox hunting is one. Perhaps, if it is true that we are becoming a more and more divided nation, the list is growing longer. But why, when we know we should be reasonable and when we hear so much about respecting the opinions of others,  do we invariably fail? Can anything be done about it? Or is a great row at a dinner party actually rather a bonus?

The forbidden is alluring. You can see guests circling around some potentially explosive topic that happens to be current. But beyond that, naturally people want to talk about issues that they care about, they feel alive, they like the security of being on what they hope is certain ground. Better than milling over the latest developments in bird-table design or an outbreak of roadworks that is hampering the school run.

Why then the shouting? Often it is the manner rather than what is being said. Other guests feel they are being hectored, addressed as at a public meeting, which was Queen Victoria’s complaint about Gladstone, talked down to or assumed to be ignorant. Mild doubts are mistaken for an adamant statement of reviled opposing views. The most important thing is not to shout back. Try to get to the heart of it: ‘I’d like to listen to you but I don’t want to be harangued.’

‘Are you telling me all these facts and Œ gures because you want me to know or just to put me in my place?’

Some hope, though. You’ll get shouting at your dinner party one day and you won’t be able to stop it. Don’t despair. Examine yourself to see if you have a deep fear of conflict. When chaos reigns there’s no hope but to revel in it. A wellknown journalist once got so furious she ran into the cupboard under the stairs and wouldn’t come out. The other guests were secretly thrilled at the collapse of the shallow mask of manners.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER


‘I date my middle age from when I first took the lift at the Uffizi.’ So spoke Mrs Shamefoot, in Ronald Firbank’s Vainglory. But the Uffizi is at least on the top floor, with no stops in between.

The other day, in a hotel in Bologna, my room was on the third floor. The lift only began, as it were, on a mezzanine, one flight of stairs up from the ground fl oor. How dreary of rival hotel guests, therefore, to take the lift merely to the first floor. Why couldn’t they walk? In the end, I found it quicker to climb up even to the third floor, by the time I’d waited politely for a miscreant to trail towards the lift downstairs, got exasperated as they pressed the button for the first floor, lurched the few feet thereto, suff ered the sickening delay before the doors wheezed open and waited some more for them to bundle out of the lift that they should never have got into in the fi rst place.

Better to eject that lift from my life altogether – that was my conclusion. I hope I will only ever take the lift one floor if the stairs have fallen down.