I have called this Modern Dilemmas, but actually the dilemma is age-old - only the names have been changed to protect the guilty. In fact, nothing has been changed and I shall begin with names. My daughter Elsie turned 13 in August, but didn't have a party at the time. Instead, tonight she and three of her friends were taken to the local pub for a meal. Her friends were Ruth, Amazon and Amber, and immediately the reader will realise that this is being written in the 21st century. Once only the heroines in schlock novelettes and lowbrow TV drama had names like Amber and Amazon. But in the year of Our Lord 2009, young 13-year-old girls from Cornish secondary schools are now so called. I had heard about Amber and Amazon but I had never met them before. I knew Ruth well. All three are very pleasant girls and none really has a Cornish accent. Instead, all of them, young Elsie included, speak in that way, like, in which Ts are dropped regularly but which is otherwise pretty classless. Even Princess Di herself had an odd accent which would not have been out of place in a typing pool. And Tony Blair was the worst offender for leaving out his Ts, especially as he did it to suck up to the great unwashed.
The dilemma was that all three of my daughter's guest, although Ruth to a slightly lesser extent, have appalling table manners. Elsie, I'm glad to say, more or less passes muster, except that her manners have slightly gone to seed since she has been attending Wadebridge Secondary School. But when she is at home, I pull her up smartish, even at the risk of being unpopular. I can honestly say it's the only thing I am quite strict on. But what do I do about the table manners of the other three when I am sitting at table with them? My inclination is gently to admonish them in the kindest, but firmest way possible. But that can so often go awry, leaving the child involved rather bruised. And, I here you ask, is it any of my business anyway? Well, I think it is. However, tonight I took the diplomatic option and said nothing. I merely bit my lip, grinned and bore it all stoically, not least because I didn't want to show up my daughter in front of her friends. Young ones are very sensitive about these matters. (As it was I was ticked off once or twice for laughing 'loudly' and only got off the hook a little when Amazon announced her father also laughed loudly and was always being told off for doing so.)
Even when Amber attacked her ham using her fork like a dagger - stab, stab, stab - I was, to my own horror - a model of discretion. I pride myself that I didn't even allow myself to look pained or sigh quietly. An onlooker would have assumed I was quite happy to see these children eating like slobs (I do exaggerate a little, but you get the picture.)
I have faced this dilemma before, when my nieces and nephews across the lane in the farm have come for supper or when I have been invited for supper there. At the risk of sounding prissy, it turns my stomach to be sitting at table with someone who, as they unfortunately do, eat with their mouths open and who don't put all the food in their mouth at once, but leave some hanging out. When I have been over there, I have kept quiet. When they have been eating at my table I have, as gently as possible said something (to my wife's irritation as she is the kind who hate confrontation of any kind). But what is one supposed to do?