Magazine article The Spectator

Dear Mary

Magazine article The Spectator

Dear Mary

Article excerpt

Q. I am baffled by certain English customs and hope that you will be able to enlighten me. My husband and I were posted to London after having lived in Peking, Paris, Jerusalem and Moscow. In these places, where food is important and people socialise around the table, we invited people to dinner and were invited back in turn. In London we started entertaining regularly, inviting people met through work, our children's school or friends of friends. Our English guests ate and drank until very late in the evening and wrote punctilious thank-you notes, but never reciprocated. They uttered a tedious litany every time we saw them: `We will organise a dinner soon ...' but never did. After two years of trying, we now live in London happily but without English guests at our table. Our social life involves other foreigners (including Scots, whose habits in this field do not resemble those of the English). We have been told that, among many possible reasons for `our problem', the quality of the food we serve may dismay and intimidate the English. Not being able to compete, they prefer not to invite back. Perhaps they don't understand that dinners are not just about food? I now suspect there are other reasons. The English are simply more pinchpenny than the people of any other nation I have lived among, and socially they are ill-at-ease. Am I wrong to be so harsh? VM., Bewildered in South Kensington

A. It is not just to do with penny-pinching. In your house the English are met with oldstyle hospitality which they very much enjoy but which they have great difficulty in reciprocating. It is not just because, usually, they have neither the staff nor the time nor the strength, to say nothing of the funds -- often they are much worse off than their appearance suggests. They certainly have the selfconfidence to invite other English round for non-lavish fare, but not you. …

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