Whenever I hear or read those chilling words “dinner party”, my mind flashes back to a remark one of our guests made at a grim evening we hosted as newlyweds in the early Eighties.
To impress my young bride, I’d invited Dominic Grieve, whom I’d known slightly at school.
True, he was not yet an MP, and his ascent to ministerial office as Attorney General was a long way ahead of him.
But he was already a hotshot lawyer, with avowed political ambitions, much spoken of in informed circles as the Coming Man.
The evening was not going well. Two of our other guests had arrived very late, which meant that the fancy trout dish my wife had slaved over for the starter was disgustingly overcooked, with the consistency of glue.
The conversation was just as sticky.
Desperate to think of something to talk about, I mentioned that we were planning a motoring holiday, driving around Brittany in our Triumph Spitfire. Dominic picked up the conversational ball and ran with it, advising us where to go and what to see.
Now, at this point I must show myself in a very bad light, because the shameful truth is that I get extremely irritated by little things.
And the little thing irritating me that evening was that Dominic pronounced every place-name on his recommended itinerary in an impeccable French accent.
In fairness, I should point out that if anyone has the right to roll his “R”s in that throaty Gallic way (think of Rennes, Quiberon or, indeed, Bretagne itself), that person is Dominic Grieve.
After all, he is half-French and a fluent francophone, having attended the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in London before we met at Westminster School.
Nor do I feel quite as strongly on the subject as my late father, who believed that all British citizens have a sacred patriotic duty to mispronounce foreign names.
I well remember the old man rebuking me fiercely for speaking of Marseilles as “Marsay”, in an approximation of a French accent, instead of using the old-fashioned English pronunciation, “Marsales”.
“Marsay, boy, Marsay? Call yourself an Englishman? Next you’ll be saying Paree instead of Paris!” (He also pronounced Calais as “Calliss” – an eccentricity I’ve never heard from anyone else.)
But I digress. As I say, I was acutely irritated by Dominic’s accent.
I was also afraid that our other guests would think I’d invited an appalling show-off to dinner.
So I announced, perhaps somewhat cack-handedly: “You’ll have to forgive him. His mother is French.”
The trouble was that it came out in quite the wrong way – not so much light-hearted as ratty and rude. An awkward silence fell, which seemed to drag on for an eternity, while I tried in vain to think of other subjects to raise, which might get the evening flowing.
At long last, the silence was broken by my spinster aunt, who piped up with the conversationally unhelpful remark: “Gosh! Everyone’s gone very quiet!”
It was then that the future Attorney General uttered the five words that will be forever associated in my mind with the social hell of the Middle-Class Dinner Party (MCDP).
Speaking this time in his distinctly posh English accent, and trying desperately to be polite, he said: “A satisfied silence, I think.”
Aaaargh!!! A satisfied silence? It was an excruciating silence, as we sat squashed round that table in our pokey one-bed flat, chewing our overcooked trout and racking our brains for something, anything, to say.
Oh, why do we middle-classes put ourselves through the agonising ritual of the MCDP?
Weeks beforehand, the pain begins as we wrestle with the decisions about the guest-list. (“Yes, darling, I know we owe the Dudleys, the Worthingtons, the Darbyshires and the Donnellys – but will they get on, or will they hate each other on sight?”)
As the awful day approaches, the tensions crank up as my wife turns her mind to the menu.
Naturally, she can’t serve up any of the delicious, simple, tried and tested dishes that she cooks so beautifully.
No, since this is to be a MCDP, it has to be something fancy, with dozens of exotic ingredients. Something that she’s never attempted before, which she thinks is sure to cause a sensation. Something, in short, that’s almost bound to go horribly wrong.
And that’s even before one of the guests turns out to be a vegetarian, another allergic to mushrooms – and latecomers keep us waiting while everything overcooks.
Then there’s the question of what we should wear.
Opt for smart, and you can be sure that the first guests will arrive in sweaters and jeans and immediately feel ill at ease. Opt for casual, and it’s equally certain they’ll turn up in suits and ties and full-length ball dresses.
(Okay, we could ring in advance to warn about the dress-code, but isn’t there a risk of sounding a little officious, thereby causing resentment of another kind?)
The long and the short of it is that I wasn’t a bit surprised to read this week’s finding that most of us spend longer planning our dinner parties than we do on deciding to put in an offer on a house.
Though a typical dinner party costs less than £100 (about R2 100), says the survey by HSBC’s mortgage department, hosts spend an average of 31 hours choosing guests, food and wine (make that 31 days, in the Utleys’ case).
By contrast, we spend only 26 hours mulling over whether or not to buy a house – average price, £283 658.
And no wonder. I reckon you can tell almost the moment you walk over the threshold whether or not you’re going to like a house.
After that tiny flat, this was certainly true of our first proper family home – a two-bed, early Victorian house, full of light, with steps leading up to the front door and a kitchen in the half-basement.
For both of us, it was love at first sight, and we offered the asking-price on the spot.
If my memory serves me right, it set us back £52 000. Ah, but this was the early Eighties, in the days before you had to be a Russian oligarch with a Panamanian bank account to buy a bedsit in London.
We were similarly decisive, but for very different reasons, when it came buying our present home in 1987.
It was dark, dingy and damp, and I disliked it immediately. But we had just been gazumped, we needed the extra bedrooms for our growing family – and I was sick to death of spending every day-off traipsing around London looking at houses.
The very next day – after about 26 hours’ deliberation, as it happens – we decided, hell, we might as well buy it and live in it for a couple of years until something more agreeable came up.
That was almost 30 years ago, and we’ve been stuck there ever since.
So, yes, our own experience bears out HSBC’s findings almost exactly. On the mercifully rare occasions when we throw MCDPs (we’re down to about one a year, thank God) the Utleys do indeed spend far longer agonising over them than we’ve ever spent deciding where to live.
And all for what? For evenings of unbearable social tension, forced jollity, excruciating silences.
Or, worse, garrulous, wine-fuelled conversation that ends in raised voices and someone (usually me) saying something he’ll regret for ever and a day.
No, give me a quiet evening at home, just the two of us, sitting by the fire after one of my wife’s simple and delicious meals, nursing the remains of a bottle of wine and dreaming of somewhere nicer to live. Now, that’s my idea of a truly satisfied silence.