The second in an occasional series of guest posts by our etiquette expert R.M. Banks.
I am, in general, one of those sturdy types whose natural resting position in the public house is at a 40 degree angle against the bar with one set of hobnails planted on the brass rail, elbows on the drip mat.
From time to time, however, even I cannot resist the siren lure of a chair and table.
For the serious shovelling of peas, the sculpting of mashed tubers, and the dissection of a coiled Cumberland, the convenient horizontality of the C&T is hard to beat.
At the end of one of those days when the patented air-soles have been ground down by an inch or two polishing the pavements of the urbis, to lower ones derriere onto a gently scalloped slice of the burnished oak of Olde England is not merely desirable – it is a necessity.
Should you drop into the Bird in Hand with company, perhaps while taking part in one of the cruel emotional experiments of the lonely hearts moguls, then perching is compulsory: one cannot make bedroom eyes in the vicinity of the Kronenbourg font while Big Alf negotiates the fee for a bag of prawn cocktail.
Too often, however, the Bird is overrun by huddled masses yearning to be free, and no pews are to be acquired – at least not at first glance.
What I shall next suggest may shock you, but be brave! Modern times require modern thinking, after all.
It is perfectly acceptable to take vacant seats at an otherwise occupied table.
“Steady on, Banks!” I hear you cry. “What next? Kissing strangers on the cheek? Borrowing their toothbrushes?”
It may help you to know that, as for Tiddlywinks and competitive cheese-rolling, there are rules.
1. Ask permission
The correct formula would be, “Do you mind if I sit here?”
(Or, if that strikes you as blunt, an acceptable variation: “Ahem. Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt. I wonder… would you mind if we were to just pop ourselves on the end of your table here?”)
Nine times out of ten, the reply will be, “Not at all”, “Be our guest”, or perhaps “Go for it, geezer – knock yourself out”.
On rare occasion, you will encounter a person – probably an acid-bath murderer yet to be discovered – who will insist that the space is required for friends who are “coming later”. In this eventuality, leave the field with dignity – your tactics were at fault, and you have been beaten fairly and squarely. But yours will be the stronger case come judgement day.
2. Maximise distance
This is a variation on that mathematical puzzle beloved of every schoolchild, the Hammersmith Urinal Problem: seats at a pub table should be filled in a sequence which leaves the maximum possible space between parties.
For example, a table for six has space for three pairs of drinkers, arranged as follows:
3. Build an invisible wall
Once the delicate docking phase of your operation has been completed, it may become apparent that your new cabin mates are sociable types – a tendency usually indicated by imbecilic grinning, a fondness for nodding, and utterances along the lines of, “I say, beastly weather, nice pub this, I see you like crisps, I’m a marine biologist by trade, what line are you in by way of work yourself, as it goes?”
Perhaps you are also afflicted with that perverse desire for small-talk that can only be sated by conversation with other such unfortunates? In which case, sate away, old thing, and accept my hearty congratulations at the happy event. (But steer clear of politics and… but, no, that is material for a future column.)
Invariably, however, the people whose table you have annexed, though they wish no specific misfortune to befall you, would rather you were not there; and you will no doubt feel much the same about them.
The tools at your disposal are humble, but powerful. First, turn yourself away from them by some five to eight degrees, putting them just in the periphery of your vision. (Life-long back pain is a price more than worth paying for the observance of the social code.)
Secondly, use the power of the grey soup sloshing about your cranium to construct a barrier, through self-hypnosis. If you must look their way, glance to the left, right, above, through, but never at them. If one of them exclaims, suddenly, “I’m on fire!”, do not react.
4. One final warning
The list of ‘hanging offences’ I keep tucked into my hatband is a short one, but the following is among them, and underlined. Twice. In red.
Permit me to produce the Crayolas and depict the scene: you see a table for six, at which sit two people. Another couple approach and, after the appropriate dialogue, as per 1, above, occupy the far end.
Then, a little later, without warning, their two friends appear and, as per the diagram above, take the two remaining spaces at the table. But, wait – what’s this? There are more! Three, this time, dragging chairs with them. The conversation rises in volume, and flecks of fish-style protein goujon-shapes from ‘sharing platters’ are projected through the air.
Eventually, those first noble settlers find themselves ‘just budged up a bit’ on to a corner of a movable they had once called their own.
This is sharing in the Napoleonic sense. Do not stoop to his level.