Friday, 11 March 2016

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 11 March

Thomas Blaikie gets his teeth into the topic of toothpicks and issues forth about blowing one’s nose at the dinner table

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
I was recently invited out to dinner. After the main course our host asked the waiter for a toothpick; he then picked at his teeth while still at the table. Could you please advise me and your readers about this conduct? While on the subject of table manners, should one blow one’s nose at the table?
Gary Kibble-White, Worcestershire

Dear Gary,
My first instinct is: Toothpicks! No! Yuck! I’m sure readers will agree. It’s not nice and it’s not necessary. Nevertheless I’m intrigued by this toothpick business and have decided to poke into it (pun: groan). Charles I had a gold one in a case. In the end, it was his only possession. He gave it, just before his execution, to the Parliamentarian guard who’d been nice to him. Prior to that, foppish gentlemen who’d travelled in Europe displayed their sophistication with elaborate jewelled toothpicks in their hats and beards.

Toothpick grandeur seems to have continued into Jane Austen’s time. In Sense And Sensibility, Robert Ferrars is first glimpsed making a tremendous performance over the purchase of a toothpick case. He turns out to be ghastly in all respects. After that, toothpicks went downhill, became wooden, and the province of working-class men in inns and lunch-rooms. Middle-class etiquette books railed against them as the enemy of decorous domesticity. An American President (Warren G Harding: ever heard of?) was said to have died of swallowing one. Mark Twain, however, has an agreeable picture of a man drifting down the Mississippi with a toothpick: the acme of leisurely male contentment.

Female enthusiasm for toothpicks is hard to detect. I wonder if it was women, gaining influence (not least through The Lady) in print and at home, who saw to it they were outlawed as boorish and unrefined. They belong to the lost world of sawdust on the floor (to absorb whatever was flung down), spitting and other unmentionable male pursuits when at ease after eating.

I can imagine that a toothpick might be deployed graciously and unobtrusively at the table but have a feeling that it won’t be. Perhaps a room could be set aside, the equivalent of a smoking room, for men to dig about in their mouths, scratch themselves, etc. As for blowing the nose at table – well, as Matron would say re: asking to be ‘excused’: ‘You should have gone [blown your nose] before.’ But if you absolutely can’t help it, and bearing in mind it’s not desirable to have people bobbing up and down from the table, it is possible to quietly, and briefly, blow your nose at the table.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

What to do about… overheard dads

The phenomenon of the ‘dad bod’ is much mentioned. This is the unsatisfactory collapsing physique of a father, painfully on display on beaches, etc, in the summer time as he competes with his offspring in physical activities. But what about the dad overheard in a public place telling his children something that… well… gives cause for concern?

Some years ago I heard an expensivelooking dad improving his children in hot weather by requiring them to produce synonyms for ‘hot’. His little girl said, ‘squelchy’. I knew what she meant but the dad was crushing. I longed to crush him for literal-mindedness. Last week I encountered a similar father and pre-school child in an auction room. ‘Do you know what these are?’ the dad asked. ‘They’re nesting tables.’ No! I longed to intervene. Not nesting tables, a nest of tables. I don’t think he’d have liked being corrected in front of his child. Which is rather the problem. These dads have an air of ‘something to prove’ and I overhear them because they talk so loud.

I see that this week I’m a bit anti-men. I expect there’ll be trouble about it.

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