Thursday, October 26, 2006

The new Week-End Book is now out in the shops, alongside The Week-End Diary 2007 - the perfect gift for everyone that likes to get out and about on their weekends. Listing major forthcoming exhibitions, country fairs, horticultural shows, music and film festivals and much, much more, The Week-End Diary is the essential accessory for 2007. Click on the link to get your copy from Amazon.

The Week-End Book featured in the launch of the new Weekend section in the Telegraph in September and will be reviewed later this month in Country Life Magazine and the TLS. You can read Julian Fellowes' Telegraph piece below.

The Good Guest, Julian Fellowes

We hear a great deal about how to entertain. How to cook, how to dress, how to decorate, there are books on these which sell in their thousands, but there is very little information on how to be a good guest and yet, heavens, what a difference it makes when you are.

Bad guests can be a nightmare. My parents were once forced into having a couple to stay at the end of the war. They came for a week and they stayed. And stayed. And stayed. And then at last it was time to say goodbye, a moment which, by some miracle, had been reached without the smiles ever cracking. The door shut with a click and my parents raced upstairs to celebrate. My mother leaped onto a table and started to dance a flamenco, swishing her skirts and petticoats to and fro, while my father circled below her, stamping his heels, clapping, whistling and laughing with glee. "They’ve gone!" they shouted, "They’ve gone! They’ve gone!" Then they stopped. The guests were standing in the drawing room door.

"We forgot to leave our key," they said.

Being a guest is a skill. It’s also a kind of work. It is something you can be good at. So many people see the role of a guest as a reactive thing, a passive response to the work of entertaining by the host. But this is not so. My training began early because one night, when I was about eleven, somebody chucked for a dinner and my mother realised with horror that the party would number thirteen. I was told (not "asked," you understand, in those very different days) to change and come downstairs to join the gathering. "When I look down the table," said my mother, who was generally a funny woman but could also be quite fierce, "I want to see you talking to your neighbours."

"But what am I to talk about?" I asked in a wavering treble.

"Nobody cares what you talk about," she said. "Just talk!"

Anyone who has sat through dinner with a companion who answers in monosyllables and never asks one single question will understand exactly what she meant.

The key factor which one should never lose sight of is a simple one: This is not your house and you are not paying. Therefore you do not have the control over your own comfort that you enjoy in even the dingiest hotel. And frankly, if the arrangement does not suit, then you should simply stay away. Or, if you must go, then make it for luncheon or dinner and not overnight. That way you can still visit and they will not hate you by the end. Reader, understand only this: No bill equals no rights.

It is often hard for people (especially the elderly) who live alone to grasp that they have entered the World of Compromise when they accept an invitation for the weekend. When you hear that dinner will be served at least two hours later than you like it, you must hold your tongue.

Anyone who says: "That’s a little late for me," will almost certainly never be asked again. In truth, I don’t understand why folk cannot eat later or earlier than they might like for one night. What are they afraid of? Will their hunger pangs render them unable to walk unaided? Will their digestion never recover? I went into our kitchen not long ago at about half past six to find a painter-friend finishing a large bowl of cereal because "I was hungry." He was not however hungry for the four course dinner that was laid before him at nine. The same holds true for your accommodation. "The mattress is very soft. Do you have a board that I could use?" No, we do not. And next time, don’t leave home.

We run a fairly relaxed house but we do have one iron rule: Once the burglar alarm has been switched on, no guest may venture down until the house has been opened up in the morning. Inevitably, one dark night, we started awake, jerked bolt upright by the jangling of bells. In terror of hearing the swooping sirens of the local police approaching, we tore down to discover an indignant American standing in her pyjamas.

"I thought we said not to come downstairs," said Emma.

"That’s ridiculous!" she replied. "I only wanted a banana."

The magic rule is simply that one must try to "fit in." Even if, these days, there are degrees. Few hosts now expect vegetarians to eat meat even if an amazing number will still slop gravy over the vegetables and then wonder why the plate is left untouched. It is also just about possible to get away with a real allergy and most of us are fairly nut conscious. Having said that, claiming an allergy is a privilege that must not be abused. Americans, especially, have come to believe that it is socially acceptable to say they are "allergic" to things when what they mean is that they don’t like them. "I’m allergic to fish," as a rule translates as "I do not like fish," "I’m allergic to eggs," "I’m allergic to offal," "I’m allergic to citrus," all these are generally no more than a list of dislikes. We even had a recent case of "I’m allergic to cabbage."

"Nobody is allergic to cabbage," said my wife firmly. "But if you do not want any, you shall not have it."

In truth, to the English, food fads are always tiresome. "No cauliflower for me!" is enough to set a British hostess’s teeth on edge. Most of all, let no guest be under the illusion that they are somehow rendered interesting and even spiritual by getting out horrible little tins and bags and sacks of things that look as if they should be used to clean decanters, and then sprinkling the contents over their plates. The ideal guest simply takes as little of the offending material as he may without being conspicuous. If he can force himself, he puts his jaw into overdrive, and swallows it. If that is truly not possible and if he wants to come back another time, then he just cuts up the cauliflower, moves it around… and leaves it. I was recently faced with a plate of glistening, spongy snails while sitting on the hostess’s right. I was a child of the nineteen fifties and I am generally equal to getting at least some of the food down my gullet but as I lifted the cunning tool to prize out the greyish, oleaginous slime, I thought, just for a moment, I was actually going to be sick and so I decided against it. I busied myself with the bread and sopped up the garlic butter but when the maid returned to remove the platter, the gleaming gastropods were still there in all their repulsive glory. What makes this tale peculiarly English was that, at no point, did I make any reference to the fact that I was choking back vomit and nor did my delightful companion once refer to my leaving her costly and elaborately prepared dish untouched. The British do not like fussing but they respect hypocrisy and nobody will criticise you for disliking your food in silence. Just don’t be a bore.

Emma is a vegetarian and so is obliged to negotiate this most un-English position through various country houses at regular intervals. Her ideal is when hostesses don’t know and so make no preparations. She is then free to pick around among the vegetables until she is content. Her nightmare is that moment when the hostess gives the weary smile of the much-put-upon and says "We’ve made something just for you." This is usually the precursor to real anguish. As it happens, she would rather eat a live rabbit than a courgette quiche but when it’s been made specially she knows there is No Way Out. She is a good guest. She understands the task before her, takes her helping and forces it down.

The rules of dining in other people’s houses are pretty simple: Come about ten minutes after the time you were told, check that you are wearing the clothes the hostess wants you in, admire the house, admire the food, try to eat everything, talk to your neighbours, ask them questions, laugh at their jokes and don’t be the last to leave. Staying for the weekend is more or less the same: Check the clothes, admire the house, admire your room, eat everything and like everybody. Although I suppose the Rules of Arrival for a weekend make it a little bit different. Above all, come when you say you are coming. An astonishing recent development is the number of people who will suddenly telephone and say "We won’t be there for Friday dinner after all," or they will announce at breakfast, "We’re leaving before lunch to avoid the traffic." Presumably they do not give house parties themselves or they would know that by doing such things, they are hurling sticks of dynamite into the plans of their host.

A lot of people today forget to leave a tip for the staff (including the invisible daily) when they go. This is irritating as it means these unfortunates have the burden of extra work with no compensation. Sometimes the hostess just pretends and runs round the bedrooms sticking twenty pound notes under the dressing table ornaments but this is really unfair on her. Another perilous area is that of presents although, by and large, the form is simple: If you are over thirty, never take anything to a dinner party and always take something to a weekend. It is a good idea to avoid giving flowers in the country but, if you must take flowers, then take them growing in a pot or already arranged in a vase. The last thing any sane hostess wants is to find herself struggling with scissors, stems and thorns just as her guests are arriving.

Above all, steer clear of the misconception that you, the guest, have a part to play in the shaping of the entertainment. That your opinion on what has been planned is a valid one. Nor are the proposed outings optional.

"We’re all going for a walk on the beach."

"You go. I’ll stay here and read. Don’t worry about me."

This will swiftly earn you the reputation of being "rather a tiresome guest." Obviously, not all houses are the same and in some there is a margin for independence. Not every suggested activity is compulsory but, beware. It is up to the guest to use their antennae to discover the truth, the difficulty being that the British, particularly the posh British, never say what they mean. When you ask: "Would you mind frightfully if I skip lunch? I’m not really hungry." You may be answered with a warm grin, "Of course not! Don’t even think of it!" When in truth the hostess, who has spent the last few days running through menus and queuing in Waitrose, wants you dead.

Then again, conversation isn’t all plain sailing. It can be tricky and a bit of homework never hurts. As a deb’s delight of nineteen, I remember stating gaily at a dinner that I was "mad about Christine Keeler" to be greeted by a thunderous silence. It seemed the famous uncle of one of my companions at the table had been ruined in the scandal. My father once asked my mother about the wine they were drinking. "This is really filthy. Where on earth did you get it?" My mother indicated a fuming guest on her right. "Patrick brought it as a present," she answered brightly. Emma’s mama is pretty good at this sort of thing. Not long ago, we had a delightful musician staying and, as a compliment, we put on one of his recordings during lunch. As the melody wafted into the dining room, my mother-in-law looked up. "What is that ghastly noise," she groaned.

It is common among people who are anxious to give the impression they are well bred to make a great show of keeping away from "forbidden" subjects. "I never discuss religion or politics," they say, or, worse, "I don’t really care for gossip." I suppose it’s possible these were once strict rules in good society but I rather doubt it since they would have disposed of every subject worth discussing. At any rate, today, the genuinely smart have few such restraints and will happily launch into any controversial view. I have in the past suspected some hosts of deliberately trying to make their guests cross, to beef up the evening a bit. As most of us know, there is nothing better than a good argument at the dinner table, best of all between a husband and wife. But, assuming one does not want to play at fisticuffs oneself, perhaps a useful guide is to remember to keep it light. Most opinions are acceptable in a discussion if they are not expressed too forcefully. Of course, if the views of the company are really disgraceful, then one always has the option of leaving rather than hear more. Should this truly be the only course open, then go quietly. Above all, avoid flouncing out. There must be no dramatic statement in your departure.
The only topic which it probably is best to steer clear of is money. Most people feel they have too little of it, which makes for uneasy listening, and those few who might be considered to have too much – or, at the very least, enough – should probably keep silent for fear of depressing their friends. Of course, as I have pointed out before now, the upper classes may not talk about money but they never think about anything else.

In the end, I suppose the chief maxim of the Good Guest is that he or she must not be a problem. They must not be unhappy. A friend once had to endure one of their own dinners being high-jacked by a sobbing woman, recently discarded by her husband, until the entire table had fallen silent under the weight of her misery. To make matters worse, she had only been brought along to make up numbers by someone thinking the evening "might cheer her up." Nor was she in the least beguiling as a personality. At the end, having pushed her, still wailing, into a taxi, the hostess turned to me: "Spare me the troubles of an unattractive stranger," she sighed. Just as a good host tries to make their guests feel comfortable, so a good guest must always create the impression that they are at ease, untroubled, having a lovely time. This obligation goes beyond the weekend or dinner in question. Good guests should not be discontented in their jobs or their homes or with their spouses. They may enjoy some humour at the expense of their families but only for the purpose of a merry anecdote. It must never seem that difficult relatives are actually causing sorrow. Their lives, in short, must be going well. They can complain about the state of the Nation or, Lord knows, the Government to their heart’s content but not about anything that might make others feel ill at ease.

Above all, a guest must absolutely never invite pity. My great aunt used to say that, in society, nobody should be "more difficult than they’re worth" and one of the most difficult people to entertain is surely the Guest with any form of Grievance. Certainly, it is odd how many men and women feel entitled to complicate social gatherings with imagined slights, as they pour out endless detail of some carefully preserved wound to their spirit. "What do you think he really meant by that?" they mutter grimly. Of all tedious inflictions by the bad guest, for me anyway, taking offence is the worst. It manages to be infuriating and incredibly boring at the same time. In the end, one dreads the sight of those of your acquaintance who are always nursing some chip or other, feeling let down, feeling ignored or under-valued or "taken for granted." Sorry. Life is too short to spend any of it with people who are looking for trouble. Some might say this indicates a lack of charity on my part but I would argue that it stems more from a modern inability to gauge the degrees of friendship correctly. While I do think one has the right to expect a weekend guest to eat food they do not like and talk to people who bore them and go for walks they do not want, I don’t believe they are obliged to come running in the small hours when the tank bursts, or to listen to wracking sobs when genuine tragedy strikes. That stuff should be, must be, reserved for one’s real friends. These, as all the world knows, form quite a different group, and anyone who cannot tell the difference has no future as a social being.

Probably, herein lies the key: Being a Good Guest is a performing art. It has little to do with lifelong friendship. Real friends will take one in when all performance is beyond one. But their number is not legion. A dozen true friends testify to a life well lived and most of us must make do with less. For the friendly acquaintance, and I have nothing to say against this most cheerful of relationships, different rules apply. They have the right to demand we play our part when invited to their tables. Play it right and you will have a busy and rewarding time of it for as long as you may care to do so.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11:45 am  

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