In this fictionalised breakfast conversation between the journalist Nicholas Tomalin and a mysterious Maud, Tomalin explains his unconventional technique to understanding contemporary culture. He expresses his appreciation for the “dog dinners” of modern society, the “piquant mixture of half-rendered-down cosmopolitan middlebrow scraps”. Sometimes tongue-in-cheek and sometimes on the verge of distasteful, Tomalin recites his observations collected from his travels as a foreign correspondent: “France can boast Brigitte Bardot, the Champs Élysées, the word “chic”, the Eiffel Tower, Louis Quinze and Fontainebleu… America has created the charcoal-broiled chicken, the drive-in movie, the kidney-shaped swimming pool and skyscrapers. … Marlene Dietrich is dog’s-dinner German while Mozart and Beethoven, of course, are not.” This was one of Tomalin’s last articles published before his death; only a few days later he would be killed on the Golan Heights by a Syrian missile when reporting on the Yom Kippur War.
“I was most gratified,” I opined en passant over the muesli to Maud one morning, “to have noticed The Tally Ho Singapore Room on my way home last night.”
“Really?” said Maud.
“In Kentish Town, Maud, of all places. Less than half-a-mile from my own doorstep. The Tally Ho Singapore Room is something, or the kind of something, which one has been seeking around the globe.”
“Good,” said Maud daintily, after completing a mouthful.
“Are you interested to learn the, on the face of it, obscure reason why this dog’s dinner of a hunt ball and Chinese restaurant, this caravanserai of Quorn and Fu Man Chu should render me such delight?”
“Well that’s it, Maud, the dog’s dinner-ness of it! The piquant mixture of half-rendered-down cosmopolitan middlebrow scraps. It says something about our contemporary civilisation.”
“To have sat, Maud, as I have,” I continued in explication, “in the Manhattan Room of the Bali Beach Hotel imbibing Löwenbräu, Irish coffee and chili con carne while a Japanese cocktail pianist tinkled the Doctor Zhivago theme music and condensation from my Löwenbräu glass rolled in droplets on to a cardboard disc decorated with the words “Skol!” “Ole!” “Cheers!” “Hasta la Vista!” “Sayonara!” and “Salut!” was to have experienced the same frisson as that experienced driving past The Tally Ho Singapore Room.”
“Ah,” agreed Maud, sympathetically.
“The Bali Beach Hotel, which perhaps I should explain was actually in Indonesia, rather than in Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Bognor Regis or Danzig, contained a very ordinary mixture of international hoteliers’ symbols, to talk of which would seem only to be boasting of the fact one had actually made it to a beach in Bali, had it not been for the Doctor Zhivago theme music, that bland evocation of the snow-swept Russian steppe. Why should a bland evocation of snow-swept steppes seem more appropriate to that dining room than Balinese music, which was all around it?”
“Because the Doctor Zhivago theme possesses the dog’s dinner-ness quality in excelsis. It has cultural good manners. It says ‘pardon’. It fits in anywhere. And, Maud, the pianist succeeded it with The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music, which evoke the Austrian Tyrol, then with Hello Dolly, which evokes West Side New York Jewry, and Thank Heavens For Leetle Girls, which evokes a Frenchman pretending to be an Englishman pretending to be a Frenchman. All these tunes say ‘pardon’. The dog’s-dinner atmosphere of that Balinese beach made it all seem entirely natural.”
“Nonetheless it till sounds rather as if you are simply boasting of your world travels,” complained Maud. “Like those journalists who keep all the airline tags on their portable typewriters.”
“Nearer home, Maud,” I went on coldly, “I have patronised Chez Nam Ting in Glasgow. And Mr Chow’s Italian Restaurant in Knightsbridge. Opposite our house in Camden Town there was, until very recently, a Christian Science Ceylonese take-away restaurant. More Regency flock wallpaper is stuck to the walls of English provincial Chinese and Indian restaurants than was ever seen by the Brothers Adam. Just as there is more Louis Quinze furniture in northern British Rail hotels than all the kings of France have ever sat upon. Soon there will be more folklorique American hamburger joints in fashionable London than in all the USA.”
“But are you not rather laboriously expressing the simple idea that what is truly excellent naturally becomes internationally appreciated?” said Maud. “A Beethoven symphony, an English cardigan, a French wine or an American steak can be enjoyed anywhere in the world, but this is not surprising.”
“No,” said I. “International culture is very different from international dog’s-dinner culture. International culture does not scream of its country of origin, but properly expresses place. International dog’s-dinner culture stridently insists on its national status, then turns out to be limply ubiquitous. Chop Suey, Maud, was invented in New York.”
“Not that dog’s-dinner culture doesn’t have its own kind of excellence. It just has to have its own kind of un-excellence at the same time. As the song-writer said: ‘Sure it’s bad, but it has to be bad in a very special way.’”
“Dog’s-dinner culture is always to be found where tired businessmen gather, among the coloured brochures, crunched peanuts, and background music of conventions, expense account meals, and package tours. All souvenirs are dog’s-dinner culture. Most banquets and balls are. Hotel owners live it to the hilt. Airlines are panoplied with it.”
“There is a simple test to distinguish dog’s-dinner culture from culture. Imagine the plastic removable lining of Boeing jet airliners. You will have been in countless 707s and will have seen how the plastic lining (in which I include the air hostesses) is stridently designed to give national ambience to different airlines. Now, if something could, in any way, be used to create that ambience it is dog’s dinner. If it couldn’t, it isn’t.”
“In the way of true excellence, Maud, England has for instance produced Purcell, John Constable, William Byrd, Jane Austen. Save an occasional hint of a hay wain, none of them have ever found their way to the Bali Beach Hotel or a 707. In the way of dog’s dinners we have produced Mayfair, half-timbered houses, Sherlock Holmes, Tower Bridge, hunting prints, Stratford-on-Avon, Gilbert and Sullivan and Gilbert O’Sullivan – and none of them would seem out of place in either. Shakespeare and the Beatles are so good they can be both genuine and dog’s dinner. Dog’s-dinnerwise, France can boast Brigitte Bardot, the Champs Élysées, the word chic, the Eiffel Tower, Louis Quinze and Fontainebleu. Haute couture used to be genuine and is now dog’s dinner. French wine and food are like Shakespeare. French sex isn’t any more. America has created the charcoal-broiled chicken, the drive-in movie, the kidney-shaped swimming pool and skyscrapers. Jazz and Westerns are like Shakespeare. All American domestic architecture is dog’s dinner. Marlene Dietrich is dog’s-dinner German while Mozart and Beethoven, of course, are not. Some countries are famous for producing only dog’s-dinner culture; the cuckoo clock, the yodel and fondue have damned Switzerland for ever, and the cha-cha-cha and rhumba have put South America in her place. I sometimes feel Che Guevara was a dog’s-dinner revolutionary.”
“What?” said Maud.
“I quote, Maud, from the Observer, 27 August 1972: ‘Jennie Harrington and nice guy Tom Dewe-Matthews on Brighton Pier. She wears a clinging long crêpe skirt as gentle as a bank holiday drizzle, with full centre panel and two pockets £12.75 by Ossie Clark for Quorum at Che Guevara.’”
“That’s in bad taste,” protested Maud.
“Whose?” I riposted. “Some very national things are good, and promotable, but don’t get to be international dog’s dinner because they don’t travel well. Châteauneuf du Pape is now dog’s dinner, Gigonda Baumanière is a Rhône Valley local speciality. If you get some place, and local hoteliers bring it out with a flourish of trumpets, as a gimmick, then it’s a local speciality. In Edinburgh you don’t get offered whisky as a speciality because it is international. They boast of haggis, the local speciality. English beer hasn’t made international dog’s-dinner status but remains a local speciality. German-cum-American lager has. Cola-Cola is the supreme dog’s dinner phenomenon; as is the kind of girl, swinging her blond hair on yachts, who advertises it. Whimsical cultural things like Alice or Winnie the Pooh hover between local specialities and dog’s dinners. All travel writing is an attempt to make dog’s dinners of local specialities.”
“There have been one or two countries you have made dog’s dinners of, my boy.”
“Be that as it may,” I replied. “They were small far-away countries that we that we know little of. But may I, in completion, read you an extract of dog’s-dinner prose? It comes, dear Maud, from probably our greatest dog’s-dinner author, Agatha Christie. She not only created Hercule Poirot, the dog’s-dinner detective, but she was a dogs dinner herself. I copied out this extract from a Saigon French-language newspaper at the height of the war there. What, I wonder, did the several hundred thousand Vietnamese readers make of it? It makes a useful political point, Maud, that imperialism, in this case French Indo-Chinese imperialism, invariably takes away a local culture and substitutes your actual dog’s dinners.”
“Read on,” said Maud.
“It has funny French quotation marks, and goes like this:
UN CADAVRE DANS LA BIBLIOTEQUE
Pas possible! s’écria Blake. Où cela?
Dans la bibliothèque du manoir de Gossington.
A Gossington? Chez le vieux Ban try? Ça c’est une riche idée … Ce vilain bonhomme!
Le visage du colonel Melchett s’empourpra.”
Maud’s visage empurpled with mirth.
“Ooh la la!” she quipped. “Zat ees, ‘ow you say?, très dog’s deenair?”
Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).