Being a club man, I rarely go to dinner parties in private homes because they have no menu. That’s not true. Yes, I do enjoy an epicurean menu, but I also enjoy the company of friends in their home. I suppose I am embarrassed by home invitations because, having lived at the club for so long, I have had no true home to which I can invite them in return.
But it has to be said that from time to time I’ve been tyrannized at dinner parties in private homes by the problem of the political litany. A political litany is where the host or one of the loudmouthed guests begins the evening with a curse against an “enemy”, usually a political enemy—not as an urbane opening of discussion but as a way of igniting the other dinner guests into some sort of fury of political bonding through the cursing of this assumed common enemy.
For the person who does the igniting, it is unthinkable that anyone would ever dissent from the litany of cursing. By the simple act of fate which has brought us together there as guests in this particular home, we are expected to unanimously join in this litany of cursing. As the cursing begins its journey around the table each guest is required to bring to the table a clever denunciation—actually, filthy abuse seems enough—against the enemy.
Yes, maybe I enjoy cursing a particularly objectionable person from our own wider circle whom we despise, but I don’t enjoy political cursing where the perverse contradictions are generally more interesting than the formulaic virtues assumed to be shared by those of us present at the table. However, to demur or to speak up for the enemy is absolutely out of place during a ritual cursing. To refuse to curse is to risk having the curse brought against you—and god-knows-what would follow from that.
In other cultures and at other times, curses were seen to be as seriously dangerous as spears; they were a big-time weapon. A verbal curse could blister the skin, for example, or cause paralysis, and, if particularly well-delivered with a furious and effective roar, it could, I’m told, even cause death. Come to think of it, on the battlefields today curses are still hurled at the enemy—even on the Fox News Channel.
At home dinner parties I’ve sat through the cursing of Reagan, the cursing of Clinton, the cursing of Thatcher, the cursing of Blair, the cursing of privatization, oil drilling, and, especially, the cursing of “America.” America seems always to be the “hotbed”—the hotbed of racism, of gun violence, of religious fundamentalism, of global warming (redundancy there?), of obesity. And if you believe that in such situations “a soft answer turneth away wrath”, you are wrong. During a cursing session at a recent dinner party at a Politically Committed Friend’s home I ventured to say, “I only recently found out what a hotbed is”, hoping this would pass for my contribution to the collective cursing. No one took the slightest interest in what a hotbed was and the look of the guests implied that I was not trying hard enough at the cursing, but they let me pass.
On this occasion, part of this particular curse had to do with a collection of signatures about the hotbed of U.S. oppression in some South American state. More than that, unless I misheard, it was about a bike ride against U.S. oppression. During the cursing, I misunderstood for a dreadful moment that it involved some sort of stunt in which I was required to ride a bike dressed up as Uncle Sam and be pelted by bystanders as I rode by. As I paid more attention I realized that you could somehow buy your way out of the bike ride by sponsoring some other poor unfortunate rider, although it was far from clear how the whole stunt worked and who the unfortunate rider might be. It certainly wasn’t going to be me.
Then it seemed that the point of the cursing was that we were being asked to give money to the hostess, who did the riding for you and gave the money to the cause. It was all very complicated. And probably illegal.
The other guests were merrily signing up and paying money to the cause. The money probably went to buy the latest high-tech weapons for some rebel group or other out in the jungle thousands of miles away from the dinner party. As the clipboard with the sponsorship sheet on it came ever closer, I excused myself and went to the toilet. Safe there, I stood relieving myself and staring at that nicely familiar Cuban poster of a woman with an AK-47 rifle in her hand, now rather faded and coming somewhat unstuck at the corners. But she was a familiar old friend, seen over the years in the toilets of many Politically Committed houses. Come to think of it, when younger, it was more often from the bed that I stared at the poster girl on the wall.
To get one thing straight: I am against U.S. oppression anywhere or anyone’s oppression anywhere. I have never been for Oppression. But that night I was more against being forced at a dinner table into a political act of uncertain consequence in some unidentified jungle in some far off country than I was against oppression in the abstract. As I finished my toilette I wondered why it was that I wasn’t back at the club in a deep leather chair reading National Geographic.
By the time I returned to the table and took my place, the cursing seemed to have subsided, but as it was my return was premature. The hostess looked at the clipboard and said, “Now, has everyone signed?” She looked up, looked back to the clipboard, and looked at me. “No, you were out of the room.”
I had obviously not stayed in the toilet with the Cuban girl long enough, but to have stayed longer would have probably raised questions of another order. To sign it now after all the private tortuous thinking I’d been doing on the question of cursing would make me a wimp in my own eyes, yet to not sign would cause a churlish fissure in the dinner party. I know we are told as children not to worry about “what other people think”, but I’ve found in life that it’s useful to take this into consideration and at least, at times (redneck bars come to mind), to confound what other people think of you until you are able to escape their company, never to return.
I read the document intently as if I were simply following my father’s advice about “always reading the small print.” There was certainly no Small Print about this document. After a preamble in upper case letters it said, “Write your name clearly in capitals and sign in the space provided.” There was a column for the dollar amount of the donation.
Pen in hand, I paused, and looking up I cleared my throat, raised the volume of my voice, and forced my way into the table’s attention: “By the way”, I said, “I only recently, after all these years, found out what the term hotbed means.”
The dinner table looked at me en bloc. I had their attention. With a conclusive gesture, I put down the clipboard and pen on the table, as if having finished my deed of solidarity, while I launched into an explanation of what a hotbed was, enjoying what was probably to be my only moment of total attention at that dinner party:
A hotbed is a seed bed over which is spread a layer of manure but, in addition, over the manure is placed a layer of glass or plastic to cause artificial fermentation forcing the growth of plants, hence, our use of it to describe any environment promoting the growth of something, especially something unwelcome, say, as in a ‘hotbed of vice.’
Having given this information that, after I’d delivered it, sounded even to me somewhat technical, bordering on irrelevant and, well, to be honest, unenriching, “hotbed of vice” suddenly sounded to me awfully appealing. But I continued with my maneuver—of which it was a part—and wiping my mouth placed my napkin over the clipboard and moved it and my plate as if the document were now all done and finished with.
The dinner party conversation gave off no rewarding or interested noises in response to my hotbed definition, and moved on impatiently to other deadly serious matters. To ensure that the threat of the clipboard was finally neutralized and shifted out of range, I helped clear the table and on one of my trips to the kitchen I placed the clipboard in the laundry out of harm’s way.
Later, relaxing over coffee and Noble Rot Riesling in the living room, someone said to the hostess, “How many sponsors have you got now?” The list, it seems, contained signatures collected from other places than the dinner party. She said, “I’m not sure. I’ll count.” She looked around for her clipboard. “Where’s the sheet?” she said, looking directly at me.
I shrugged innocently and somewhat theatrically looked about me, including upwards, as if the clipboard could’ve been suspended somewhere just nearby in mid-air. She went off to search for it.
She came back with it, saying, “I don’t know how it got to be in the laundry.” I suppose she looked at me when she said this but I was not looking at her or at anyone. I was studiously reading the vintage history of the label of the Noble Rot bottle.
I heard her count up the names on the sheet. “Seventeen”, she said. “And you should make eighteen—I thought you’d signed?” I slowly lifted my eyes from the label of the wine bottle and met her eyes. I was now, for sure, under close surveillance. She handed the clipboard back to me, again with the assumption and requirement that I would be glad to sponsor gun running of surface-to-air missiles or whatever to some tequila-drinking rebels I’d never met in some jungle training camp.
What was the worst that could happen to me if I didn’t sign? I would never be invited back into the real world of families and friends and into a diverse cross-section of political discourse ever again. I would spend my evenings at the club in civic isolation, reading a good book or taking a third night-cap glass of port with the Colonel.
But damned if I was going to sign.
This time, I patted my pockets pretending to be searching for a pen, smiling at her and mumbling, “Writers never have a pen.” I went over to their antique rolltop writing desk saying, “There’ll be a pen over here somewhere.” The host said yes, there should be a pen there somewhere.
I shuffled papers on the antique rolltop desk, hearing the conversation moving on again. I even glanced through my hosts’ American Express bills, and after a proper lapse of time left the pen and the clipboard, unsigned, there on the desk and then rolled it firmly down and rejoined the dinner party hoping that the courteous after-dinner waiting time of one-hour-after-coffee would now pass quickly and I could catch some late-closing louche piano bar. Even a port with the Colonel seemed unusually appealing.
But before the courteous one-hour-after-coffee was up who should appear but the family’s six-year-old girl, named Tom (don’t ask), emerging sleepy-eyed from her bedroom.
She bumbled about for hugs and compliments, and after the guests had paid their excessive attention to the only child of the family, her mother obviously felt that even more attention should be paid to the six-year-old and that the six-year-old should be asked to display her political and educational development. She asked Tom to read out the political manifesto of the sponsorship sheet, saying, “It’s over there in the desk.”
Tom went over to the desk, rolled it up, and fetched the wretched clipboard. I wondered if sufficient time had decently lapsed for me to go to the toilet again, this time with the idea of quietly letting myself out of the back door, never to return. With very fine enunciation, Tom read out the political preamble and the print-your-name-clearly-and-sign-in-the-space-provided instruction and then went on to read the names and the dollar donations they had pledged.
I poured an unseemly large glass of Noble Rot.
As she read she identified the donors. “Helen”, Tom said, pointing at Helen; “David”, she said, pointing at David; and so on around the room. She soon came to the end of the list, looked around, looked at the list, and then she pointed at me. “He’s the only one not on it.”
I grinned and clapped in a ludicrous way as if this had been some trick or test I’d planned all along, “Well done, Tom!” I said, “Well, done!”
Tom brought the clipboard over to me again—like mother, like daughter. “Fetch me a pen from the desk, Tom”, I said, “there’s a good girl”, still smiling and laughing at nothing, surprised to see that the unseemly large glass of Noble Rot had now been drunk. Tom did fetch the pen and handed it to me.
Fortunately, Tom was distracted by further questions about herself from the other guests-“was she intending to do Earth Sciences or Peace and Conflict studies at university?” and so on—and had turned her attention away from me. After much other precocious chattering she was herded off to bed. I had by this time put the wretched clipboard, unsigned, on the floor and stealthily with my foot gradually edged it well under the sofa, where, to this very day, it might still be. Yes, oppression in some South American state may have triumphed because of my foolish act of social perversity.
But later at the club, I reminded myself that I had triumphed against an oppressive host. I also felt, deep in my heart, that to curse in bad faith and without due and proper consideration could well have hooked me into that undecipherable chain of universal consequence that goes to make up the larger, crueler scheme of things. I was right not to risk that, and right, as well, to defend the sanctity of a curseless dinner.