Saturday 21 March 2009

A tale of two dinners

I hate dinner, me. Naturally I always aspired to eat it as a boy growing up in a lower-middle-class household in the east end of Newcastle, where the evening meal was called “tea” and dished up as soon as the family returned from school or the office (at least, thank God, never the mine, factory or shop). It really was afternoon tea, too (cake and biscuits, and maybe a sandwich if you were lucky) until I persuaded my mother that I deserved something cooked (a) because I had got used to it while being cared for by an aunt and uncle with slightly higher social aspirations, and /or heartier appetites, during one of her stays in hospital to try to get over the dreadful trauma of giving birth to me: and (b) because I was denied a hot lunch by the sheer bloody awful inedibility of the catering at my school.

When I was in the sixth form a small group of us held little dinner parties for each other in our parents’ homes, prepared by our long-suffering mothers. At university I positively relished formal meals in hall, proudly wearing my academic gown. And I continued to look forward to dinner parties after I graduated, until I finally grasped that they were a lot of trouble to give, pretty excruciating to attend, nearly always resulted in my lying awake for most of the following night with agonizing indigestion, and were a major contributor to the enemy side in my ongoing battle with my weight. Far better on every count to have a large and convivial lunch, snooze in one’s employer’s time during the afternoon and revive to do some useful reading, writing or viewing of Coronation Street in the evening. The only downside being that “No thank you, I don’t eat dinner” is not a reply to an invitation calculated to win friends or influence people, should one have the slightest desire to do either.

But it did enable me to achieve a convincing victory in the Great Weight Loss Challenge with my fellow Newcastle Journal columnist, which was drawing to a close at about this time last year. Tom had foolishly vowed to lose 21lbs by Easter (not realizing that Easter 2008 was about as early as the ecclesiastical calendar permits, giving him a month less than he had budgeted to achieve his goal). I bet him that I could do it, too, and amazingly I did, dropping from 15st 10lb on Boxing Day 2007 to 14st 0lb on Easter Day 2008. I did it with the aid of my patented Iet™ (the No D for Dinner Diet). Poor Tom never stood a chance, expressing bafflement as he watched me downing wine and eating pudding when we met for lunch during the challenge. The key difference being that he then went home to a lovely partner who expected to enjoy his company over supper, while I sat on the sofa with my Border terrier and just had an apple and a glass of water.

Unfortunately it’s all gone to hell in a handcart since I too acquired a lovely partner, who faithfully trots off to the office every weekday and expects to be able to spend some quality time with her husband in the evening. She is a great cook and immensely sociable, too, so it is hard to see any escape from a return to the dinner party circuit. Tonight we went to a very decent pub in the posh bit of Warrington (no, honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it, either) to celebrate the birthday of one of her friends, and it was fine, really. Apart from the fact that I was at least a decade older than any of the other attendees, and that the table split into “boys” and “girls” ends, and I had to try and attach myself to the latter. I may not know much about breastfeeding, child-rearing, flower-arranging, make-up and the other stock topics of female conversation, but I can sure as hell have a more intelligent stab at those than at the manly staples of football, rugger and – as it turned out – chartered accountancy.

Still, it was a vast improvement on every level from last night’s dinner, which left me feeling bloody awful for the whole of today. It was entirely my own fault for not sticking to my firm resolution never again to attend an old school reunion. But I was tempted when they invited me to be the guest speaker at their London bash, since if there is one thing I enjoy it is making people laugh (and hard though it may be for readers of this blog to believe, I have been known to achieve that in after-dinner speeches. Helped obviously by my audience having attained a level of drunkenness that would lead them to collapse in helpless hysteria at a reading of one of Gordon Brown’s more earnest speeches, or indeed of the Norwich telephone directory). However, I stupidly felt compelled to point out that it was not that many years since I had delighted them with my apercus, and that perhaps they might like to try someone else. I suggested a friend who is well known to be a member of the British National Party, feeling that this would do it nicely. As no doubt it would have done if he had mentioned it, rather than sticking to a series of unexceptionable reminiscences about the world class loons who had attempted to educate us. He referred to the catering, too, but I had warned him not to be rude about it as mention of the name of the late school cook always produces a rumble of appreciation rather than the launch of the expected campaign to locate her grave, dig her up and hurl disgusting food at her remains in a belated attempt to get our own back. I had nightmares for years about her fat- and gristle-based concoction that was variously described as Irish stew and Lancashire hotpot.

Still, having dropped him in it, I felt that I had no alternative but to turn out to offer moral support, as shamelessly heckling him in search of a cheap laugh is now called in this blog.

The food at the dinner was nothing to write home about, but it compared favourably with what we had known at school and the organizer demonstrated a fine sense of humour by choosing pork fillet wrapped in filo pastry for the main course, at an event where about a third of the attendees appeared to be Jewish. The dinner had apparently been on its last legs in 2008, when attendance had slumped to only 30. Instead of quietly withdrawing its life support, this year they had somehow managed to rebuild it to more than 50, but booked a room ideally suited for a dinner for 30, so that we were packed in shoulder-to-shoulder like, well, little schoolboys. It brought it all back. Despite my best efforts I was seated in nerds’ corner, too, as I always am on such occasions. My God, it was dreadful. No wonder I drank far too much.

The president leaned over at one point and asked why I thought no-one under 40 attended these occasions. I did not know where to start.

I still don’t.

Never again.

No, really.

Never again.

This time I mean it.

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