Where have all the dinner parties gone?


Where have all the dinner parties gone?

LIN SAMPSON mourns the loss of brilliant conversation and banal food.


I LOVE dinner parties. To baby boomers like me, the dinner party was our Tinder, our social media, Twitter, Facebook, and it hovered over all the contemporary vogueing of the noughties.

I was a dinner party frequenter because I was party to gossip and inside info. I worked on magazines and newspapers, trawled the dark net and was in contact with spree killers, sexually knackered men wearing plethora, even prostitutes.

I had talked to a man in Bloemfontein who cut out women’s clitoris (what on earth is the plural of clitoris?) and kept them in his fridge. He was Danish. I had sat through two high-end trials — the Inge Lotz and Anni Dewani murders (can’t go into them, google) — and come across a lot of guys who had topped their spouses in fits of rage.

When it came to murder, the Cape courts were off the chains. I had my own little pocket of stories and did not hesitate to use hallucinatory hyperbole, overstatement, understatement, wild exaggeration, staccato detail, keep-you-awake innuendo, flat out lies.

The main thing was to be entertaining. Luckily, I had grown up in a family who believed in dinner party prattle and talking. My pa used to say, “Just keep talking." In our family we regarded silence, especially with someone who had gone to the trouble of cooking you a meal, as treachery.

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We were taught to sing for our supper, something that is no longer fashionable. Within the dinner party gulag, straight but single men are a perennial problem. There are only two in Cape Town and they are booked up for years. One I know has left the country to avoid constant harassment.

Finding the right dinner party mix is tricky. I am partial to toffs, unfiltered old Etonians like Boris Johnson who use expressions like, “I was a busted flush" or “sponsor me some wonga". I remember one dinner party with three peers of the realm out in South Africa on a golfing tour. They said things like, “Donnez moi a break" and got so drunk that they lay on the floor with napkins over their faces.

You also need a person of deep indiscretion. The best dinner party guests are often people tricked by circumstance and bad luck into venturing beyond boundaries they know to be right. Nonstop talkers with obliging manners and sharp clothes are always in demand.

I remember a cousin wearing a shirt with pearl buttons and a rattlesnake belt. Although it was the days before it was obligatory to be in the throes of some sort of gender transition, guests comprised a surprising number of men who liked to slip into a frock.

I lived with one who loved dinner parties because it meant a new frock, which he made himself. His favourite was made from red plastic with a hood and waist-high slits on either side, all stuck together with glue. He was a mathematician who never quite got the hang of sewing. In thigh-high boots, he was over six foot. He not only looked knockout, he could knock you out.

The star quality for a dinner party guest is someone who can tell a good story, called in dinner party lingo “good value". The thing is to keep away from the humourless, didactic, upwardly mobile metropolitan elite.

On the whole, South Africans are not good at dinner parties. They appear to think you have invited them round and slaved over a hot meal just to see them. I remember a dinner party in the upper reaches of the City Bowl where five people, admittedly mostly Afrikaners, sat in total silence, as passive as pandas while I tottered about trying to put food on the table. When someone asked, “Have you got salt?" it sounded almost existential. It was like running an intensive care ward.

When it comes to guests, you need to go to the wire. The perfect guest is someone with a gift for surreal improvisation, a linguistic Dadaist with pungent articulation, semi-formed thoughts, offhand ripostes and a dirty mind.

The worst guests: academics, particularly anyone in the humanities or English departments at UCT. Left-wingers and/or activists. Vegetarians, because it's so difficult pretending the potatoes have been cooked separately from the meat, and nut cutlets are hell to make. Gluten-free eaters. I just say everything is gluten-free, which seems to keep them happy. People who have never lived in another country. Social workers/nutritionists/long-distance swimmers, always very dull.

Doctors can be useful but you don’t want anyone who describes tumours in gritty detail or carries human kidneys in a jar. Anyone with allergies. When did this become a thing with waiters urgently whispering in your ear that there are peanuts in the pudding?

Banned topics: Israel and Palestine, banned now, banned 20 years ago. Aluta continua. Health. Once, at a very smart dinner party, the woman sitting next to me was found to be dead. She had quietly slipped away, not wanting to disturb the guests.

My own dinner party story which sadly has not stood the test of time was about Mary, the maid. I was lodging with a family in Atholl, Johannesburg, and Mary was tasked with taking them all breakfast in bed. Herb, the pa, used to say, “Mary has two speeds, slow and dead slow.”

When she wanted to find another job, I put an ad in the local rag saying she had worked for me for years, with no mention of the dead slowness. My phone rang for five days with that whining Joburg falsetto asking questions that I was not qualified to answer. The sound of a landline now brings on a spate of nostalgia.

Tell me, can this girl make Black Forest? How easily we struck up the weird intimacy that exists between madams. Tell me, does this girl do floors and windows? Sometimes a voice from the background could be heard, “Ask if she steals sugar and does she have a boyfriend.”

Nowadays it is difficult to find people with real rizz. Most are living in Sydney or are orthodontists in SW7. Who would I invite? I have only been able to think of the man at the traffic lights in Breda Street, up the road, ancient and attached to a drip but always with a clean white ironed shirt beneath his suit. I know he lives in a cardboard box and am interested to know how he gets that white shirt to sparkle. OMO should employ him.

I like Tasha Tyler because she speaks no known language, something between Afrikaans and English. She and her clothes are startling, plus she runs the meisie mafia in Cape Town and is Jack Parow’s sister.

Dominique Enthoven is the writer I most admire and wears shoes that cost more than Trump Tower. Talking about that, I could cope with Trump and certainly Elon Musk with his funny little self-deprecating giggle.

People on the spectrum can be such fun. A borderliner is essential. And I wouldn’t mind Oscar Pistorius, who could probably do with a cuppa and a roast potato after that revoltingly sensationalised trial.

The problem with South Africans is that most of them have never understood the effectiveness of self-deprecation. They will continue unblushingly with stories of how their children cum lauded it. I had never heard the words before and thought they had something to do with porn.

For a long time I thought this blowhard stuff was some kind of deeply subtle and secret irony peculiar to Saffas and which I did not understand. I mean, who goes around saying, “Be kind to yourself"? I just could not get a grip on the fact that people would happily say, “I am so blessed."

Boris Johnson is the king of dinner parties because he understands the value of self deprecation and appears slightly crazed and simple-minded when he is really as cunning as a cane rat. He might start a speech in front of an audience of thousands about his drug policy by saying, “Now what is my drug policy again?" as he delves around in the pockets of a suit that looks as if it spent the night in the morgue.

He has brilliantly worked out that people don’t like clever intellectuals, but don’t be fooled, there’s a smooth machine under the buffoonery. “As I was saying — what was I saying? — can someone tell me what I was saying?”

Writers, sadly, are usually useless. The better they write, the worse they are at conversation. I have known Rian Malan for more than 30 years and I have never heard a single word he has said. I once sat next to John Coetzee, who deplored the idea of being entertaining at the expense of integrity. No, not a great dinner party guest despite a Nobel prize. Did he really get one? Can’t remember.

He, like many Saffas, simply did not understand the startling effectiveness of self-deprecation. When a man says unblushingly, “Oh I am a great writer,” and looking him up next day, one discovers he writes recipes, it is embarrassing. It’s not grammar we’re looking for mate, there are people who can fix that, but a bit of swank and style. AI offers all the bloody grammar we need and more.

The dinner party was never about food. The food could be inept nursery fare — I have eaten something that looked like a bowl of mucus. A roast chicken from Pick n Pay was and probably still is considered sophisticated. But it was a chance to air your personality and maybe have a fight or two, especially if Herman Lategan was present.

A good dinner party is theatre and the preparations are crazy exciting, piling on smack, lighting candles, shoving the dirty plates in the oven, lighting fires, throating half the booze, primping the table. Shooting your eyes out with champagne corks. Gail Behr, sadly now gone to the big dinner party in the sky, was the best. She had a biblical belief in fire and ice. “Just light a big fire and have bowls of ice everywhere," was her motto.

Most of her dinner parties were marked by massive arguments (something she encouraged) and I frequently had to get a taxi home in the middle of the night, once all the way from Plettenberg Bay. This combination of sexual aesthetics, amped-up seduction, bad food, masses of booze and clever conversationalists who can switch gear from being anarchists to African elephant experts make swipe right look like toast.

♦ VWB ♦

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