A well-laid table

Reciprocity – the rules of entertaining

in The Way We Live Now

Pissed-off Toff wonders how many times you can have someone to a good lunch party or dinner party without being asked back.

Entertaining properly is demanding, time-consuming and expensive. When I say properly, I mean a well-thought out combination of friends; champagne on arrival and good wine thereafter; food prepared in advance; flowers in the drawing room and flowers, silver and candles in the dining room; in other words, the works.

I love it. However, I have almost entirely stopped doing it. There are a number reasons for this. Partly, the difficulty of assembling the guests, and the endless chivvying and chasing involved. It was not always so. When, as a boy, I lived in the country, my parents entertained constantly and were constantly entertained in return. All their friends had time.

Nowadays, however, everyone is so busy (my most hated word). For many people, attending a lunch party in London during the week is all but impossible; and at the weekends many people are away. Assembling guests for dinner parties is not much easier. All this is the most difficult aspect of giving a good party. The rest – the shopping, the cooking, the preparation – is elbow-grease.

So if I have more or less stopped entertaining, the sheer complication of it is a large part of the reason. Also the expense. A successful dinner party for ten I gave the other day cost about £400. Granted the menu, which included best foie gras for the starter, it was good value at £40 a head. Nor, in this instance, was I too bothered by the cost, because the evening was intended as a thank you to someone who had done me a life-changing favour.

Mainly, however, the reason for my diminished enthusiasm for this exercise is that … well, I so very often don’t get asked back. Which leads me, after a long preamble, to my point. This being: How often can one ask a friend or a couple to a properly good lunch party or dinner party without receiving an invitation in return?

* * * * *

I am not the only one who has agonised over this. Only last week, a friend of mine confessed to similar worries. He and his wife like to entertain in their flat in the centre of London. But all too often they find that they don’t get asked back. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Are we boring? Are we in some way undesirable?”

Absolutely not, I replied. The answer, we concluded, is that a sizeable number of people are happy enough to accept a nice invitation, but not to give one in return. Ever.

What are the reasons for this?

One person I know, who has a large house in the country and no shortage of cash, says he doesn’t entertain because his wife is a perfectionist; so nothing is good enough and nothing happens. Another friend, who is happy enough to accept nice invitations but not give them, suggested to me the other day – rudely, I thought – that only ne’er-do-wells and layabouts have the time to entertain. “Don’t you realise,” she said, “that most people have demanding jobs?” (Really? I had no idea!) And then a third friend told me, the other day, almost as though it was a mark of virtue and high-mindedness, that he and his wife simply don’t entertain. “We just don’t do it,” he said.

* * * * *

Now I’m the first to recognise that giving a proper dinner party is a considerable undertaking, and I quite see that for many people at is all too much. But in that case, a nice kitchen supper will do, won’t it? If you can’t cook, Marks & Spencer or Waitrose will provide first rate food that just has to be put in the oven. And if even that is too difficult, there are restaurants and clubs where you can entertain without lifting a finger. Unless you are in dire straits or very hard up, something along these lines is surely possible.

And another gripe. If I have entertained generously and am being taken out in turn, it is nice if some thought has gone into it. For example, a friend of mine and his wife came to two all-stops-pulled-out evenings that I hosted, one of them particularly memorable and glamourous (I says it who shouldn’t); after which I was thinking that the next move was theirs. In due course I received a message. Would I like to meet up for lunch one day, just him and me? Yes, of course, I replied, dreaming already of a nice linen tablecloth and a decent bottle of chilled Chablis in a suitable place in Mayfair, or perhaps in the City.

But it was not to be. Since he was so busy, could we meet at his house far away in the north of London, before going out to eat? Of course, I said. Then on arrival, could I wait while he made a few telephone calls? Of course. Then he wasn’t sure where to go for lunch, so could we wander around till we found somewhere? Of course. Finally, just as all the eateries in the area were closing for last orders, we sat down in an empty fish and chip shop. Here, wine was mooted, without conviction. When the bill came, I offered to contribute my share. (Was I his guest, I now wondered, and was this meant to be a thank-you? By this stage I was no longer sure.) “Don’t worry,” came the answer. “I’ll put it on expenses.”

Whereas another friend quite frequently comes to the flat I occupy for enjoyable lunches à deux. Since he lives mainly on his estate in the country, it isn’t practicable for him to have me back or for me to go there, but every now and then he gives me a slap-up meal in his club. I am not, I hope, drawing up a ledger. But the giving and taking is broadly reciprocal, and we are both happy.

* * * * *

So I repeat the question: How often can one have a friend or a couple to a properly good lunch party or dinner party without being asked, in return, to something quite nice (whatever form that takes)? I’ve consulted several people about this, and they all said the same. And the answer is: Twice, or perhaps three times at the most.

There are exceptions, of course. If the friend in question is a poor undergraduate, or of a younger generation and struggling to get by, none of the above applies. Or if the friend is disabled or elderly or bereaved or in some way just not capable of reciprocating. Or if there is a very considerable difference in your circumstances and those of the other person or couple … for example, I can think of various extremely rich friends who entertain constantly, almost regally, as a way of life. With them tit-for-tat is just not possible or realistic. In such cases, different rules and conventions apply.

But generally speaking, and among approximate equals, after two – or at the most three – unreciprocated invitations, you just can’t ask them again. It isn’t right and it isn’t dignified.

 

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