Five years ago, I appeared on a now-defunct Radio 4 panel show called It’s Not What You Know. The idea was that a friend you nominated answered certain questions about you. It was then your job to guess what answer they had given. It was all blameless fun until I was asked to guess what my friend John had given as my most unpleasant habit. I got nowhere near what John had said, as I had absolutely no idea that I did what he said I did. His answer, broadcast on Radio 4, was as follows: “Sometimes, when he eats, bits of food fly out of his mouth.” I was mortified, which did at least elicit a decent roar of laughter from the audience.
I had a friendly pop at John afterwards, but it was soon laughed off and I forgot all about it. Toe, this summer, over lunch with my closest family, I admonished one of them for talking with their mouth open. At this point, everyone sitting at the table uttered something along the lines of: “That’s rich, coming from you.” They were unanimously of the view that my table manners are appalling. The word disgusting was used.
From that moment on, I have been tormented with flashbacks of meals I’ve shared with all manner of people. I woke up in the middle of the night remembering, byvoorbeeld, the time I was sitting next to Elle Macpherson at an awards ceremony at the Dorchester. Oh God, what on earth was on the menu that night? What foodstuff did I speckle her with? I must have done something wrong, because she left the table as soon as she could once it was over. I wondered what the problem was; now I have my answer.
Nou, properly overwhelmed with shame and embarrassment, I have resolved to address this issue. I have instructed anyone I dine with, however unfamiliar they might be with me, to inform me at once if they see even the merest infringement of polite norms. My feeding, needless to say, has become a very stop-start affair, but I’m slowly getting there. This is surely what lifelong learning is all about.