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11 September 2000

Don’t talk WordStar at the table

Brenda Maddoxallows the F-word at dinner but strictly prohibits all e-converse

By Brenda Maddox

Some matters, I have long believed, should not be discussed at the table. This principle has held firm over time; only the subjects have changed. When my children were small, I would call a halt on all talk along the “squashed snail, spattered brains” line. Not from any moral squeamishness. The blood and mire of life has to be faced. But not when I am serving up a steaming dish of veal cacciatore that has taken the whole morning to prepare, not counting the trip to the butcher.

When adolescence held sway, I would veto financial negotiations of the “Can I have £200 to buy a new guitar?” variety. Table topics should be of general interest.

Do understand. I never strove to emulate the late Joe Kennedy, who brought up his legendary brood to tread the world stage by insisting that they participate in, or at least listen to, discussions of foreign affairs – the only subject deemed worthy of the Hyannis Port or Palm Beach dinner-table.

My censorship has nothing to do with propriety, everything to do with relaxation and enjoyment. A meal should be a pause in the day’s occupation, a social occasion, whether what’s on the plate has been marinading in wine for three days or just delivered in cartons by motorbike. Who said the Simpsons are a “dysfunctional family”? They gather together as a family around the table every evening – for two courses, too, if my eyes haven’t deceived me.

You might think, when the number at the family table has been reduced to two, that taboos are no longer necessary. Wrong. My blacklist still exists, and top of it is “Diary”. Discussions about the calendar quickly deteriorate into “How can you be in Chicago on Tuesday, when you’ve promised to be in Llandrindod Wells on Monday night?” interrogations. The table becomes a desk; the meal, a meeting.

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Those London clubs that forbid papers at the table know what they’re doing. Policing other people’s tables is more difficult, but that does not alter the universal truth: food is uniquely vulnerable to the power of suggestion. A raised eyebrow, an “I wonder if this cream has gone off?”, an anecdote about food poisoning once suffered from eating rabbit in St Petersburg, will spray disgust over a table faster than a blast of pine-scented air-freshener.

Away from home, I usually restrain myself, but none the less find myself murmuring “I’m not sure that’s a topic for the table” when American friends launch, as if contributing conversational gems of Wildean sparkle, into a recital – with all the statistics – of the state of their blood pressure, pulse rate, internal organs and current medication.

I manage to keep silent (just) when a tap on the glass with a fork precedes a declaration of profound thanks at being invited to “this beautiful home to break bread with such wonderful people”.

Other dinner-killers are discussions of skiing and air schedules: “We always fly United, but as they don’t go into Sao Paulo, we’re picking up Air France at Charles de Gaulle and . . .” Nothing is drearier than other people’s travel arrangements.

I thought my taboo list was complete until last month, when a new horror revealed itself: e-converse. Any reference to the processes and procedures of information technology, I now realise, kills social intercourse faster than turning on the television.

Picture the scene. A good dinner, a congenial bunch, lots of drink, talk and laughs, when from my lips slipped the sentence: “I write in WordStar.”

It was as if I had admitted that our loo was in a shed in the garden. Shocked silence gave way to gasps of “You don’t mean it!”, broken by the quiet murmur from another spinner of long texts that he, too, found this antediluvian word-processing programme compatible with his fingertips and creative unconscious.

But how – the assembled digerati de-manded to know – do you bridge the gap between WordStar and Windows 98? Why don’t you use Word, the programme used by the rest of the civilised world? “Well,” I found myself intoning, “you enter through an icon on your desktop, press Control K T, which copies your file, and then you call up the copy as a non-document file, then you press Control Q U, and . . .”

“Is that the same as converting it into Ascii?” The PC in the corner was switched on. There was a flurry of grabbing for the mouse, pointing at the screen and shouts of “Look in Accessories!”, “Drag and drop” and “I said ‘single click’, not ‘double click’!” – until the entire party slipped, e-babbling, out into the night.

So, if we find ourselves at the same table, do let us argue furiously about global warming, Ulster Unionists or slasher movies. Eat or don’t eat, as you wish, and use the F-word if it suits you. But please, please, don’t pray, vomit or talk about vomit, tell me your cholesterol count or accumulated air-miles. And don’t use the e-word, any of them – unless you, too, are a secret WordStar addict.