Impeccable Table Manners

Max and Tamara

There are so many things we don’t say, when we really should. Call it our British reserve or a stiff upper lip, or whatever, but there is something that prevents most of us telling it like it is, storing it up for later. Unless you go on a confessional TV show like Jeremy Kyle – itself usually the last resort for people who’d never accept or afford therapy and can’t have things out in person, and tend to be exception, not the rule –  most of these things go left unsaid forever, swirling around in our heads, or blurted out alone, in a desperate replay of events, a version where you do get to say your piece, when the red button is pressed with no danger of nuclear fallout.

My Irish nana was the queen of this. She held her tongue and pursed her lips in silent mortification most of her life, only letting loose when she was at the kitchen sink. All the arguments she’d never won, every bon mot she’d ever stumbled over, every passive-aggressive snipe over the fence with a harridan neighbour she’d never managed to get the better of was hung out to dry while she washed up. You could tell she was having one of her run-throughs because the plates and cups would be clattering extra loudly and she would be nodding or shaking her head vigorously, and  saying her piece in hushed tones. I wonder if she ever found it satisfying, letting rip on her crockery and issuing threats and challenges in aggressive, staccato whispers. We criticise ourselves and others for oversharing and trolling and hating, and while the power to walk away from an argument is the strongest one, I don’t ever want to find myself standing at the kitchen sink, complaining into the ether. And yet, as I load my dishwasher –progress! – I find myself replaying scenes, some of them from long ago, and adding notes to my script. Lines that will never be read out loud.

Hoping to build up their part, get plenty of time on stage and be heard at the back of the theatre this week are 34-year-old Max, a recruitment consultant (it says here) and Tamara, 32, who works in human rights. Read what happened on the date before I wade in and say all the things they never say.




“A mutual chemical match.” I know humans are full of chemicals and we hear about sexual chemistry all the time, with pheromones etc, but there is something about admitting that it’s all science and not romance that’s very cold and clinical. That’s why I always ignored dating websites that would tell you what percentage a match you were for someone, or dating agencies that offered special algorithms to hook you up with the right person – it seemed so  purpose-built, leaving nothing to chance, ignoring bright eyes, or beaming smiles or charming conversation.

“Someone who’d grow vines with me in Italy.” I bet Max’s bedside table is stacked with autobiographies.


The One. Fuck The One.  When you think about The One, you should really ask yourself what it is about them that makes them The One, and how this fits into your idea of what The One actually is. If, for you, The One is the person you want to marry, buy a house or live with, have babies with, spend 30 or 40 years ago avoiding divorce with, then The One could be anyone – you just need to find someone else willing to go along with this devastatingly pedestrian plan you have mapped out for yourself.

The issue with The One isn’t just that they’re difficult for you to find, it’s that you too have to be The One for someone else. Looking for The One is really looking out for Number One, for you. The One is someone who will share and endure whatever life throws at you both. But what happens the day they don’t? If things start to change? If they want more than you, or less? Were they never The One in the first place, or are the simply no longer The One now, because they don’t bend to your will any more? Could they be The One again, and what would that involve? A few sacrifices, perhaps. Then are they truly The One. Forget The One, just look for The Next One and hope for the best. The true One is you, and you already have you.


Says “Max”.


What’s in a name, eh? Plenty.

I grew up with what you might describe as a posh, slightly unusual, name in a distinctly non-posh family and area and, let me tell you, it is character-building stuff. I grew to hate the sound of it, the way other people at school would say it with a flourish of their hand or a wrinkle of their nose – all the Marks and Peters and Davids and Simons and Sarahs and Samanthas and Claires would find it very amusing, especially when it became apparent that I was, you know, on the gay side. I was desperate to change my name as a child, to something like Aaron, or Zac – still unusual and aspirational but unmistakably solid, boyish, invisible too bullies – but apparently you had to wait until you were 18, and by the time I made it to 18 I was who I was, and there was no getting away from my name by then.

Oh, and there was a Tamara in my class and she was NOT posh either; let me assure you, Max, names aren’t everything.


Dunno. Came in wearing a bowler hat? Laid his coat down over a puddle for her to step over? Offered her some snuff? Held a door open? In a world of lads, bants and the normalisation of sending a picture of your penis to a woman before saying hello, the bar for being a gentleman these days is so close to the lino, this compliment could mean anything.



My nana used to say that people who talked a lot about the past had nothing going on in the present.

Travel. Sigh. I’ve been about a bit, but I do find talking about where I’ve travelled is like a dull dick-swinging contest with five guys in polyester suits who are staying at the hotel next door for a conference. I guess you can work out a lot about someone from where they choose to travel and how, but, for me, spouting forth about your past and perfect holiday destinations is the 21st century version of working out whether someone went to a “good school”. It’s like being at dinner with Hyacinth Bucket.



I guess Max must be a gentleman, because he doesn’t say whose stray hand it was. Tamara, however, confesses.

The pair of them went to a super-snoot restaurant on the Strand, so I imagine they were spared the inane “Waaaaaaaaaaaay!” people in pubs bellow when someone breaks a glass.






The best thing about her is that she’s sensible? It’s been a long time since I’ve had to court the affections of a straight woman, and I know times have changed and we’re all either sinking back into sexless virginity or becoming wank-hungry sexmonsters with the social skills of a phishing email selling you Viagra, but sensible? That the best you can do? I don’t know another woman in the world who’d like to hear sensible in a romantic setting.

Sensible is what you want teachers to think you are at school, it’s for grandmothers to admire, as they hand over a shiny pound from their leatherette purse and pull a hanky out of the cuff of their blouse to wipe your face. It is not, under any cirumstances, what you want to hear someone say about you after a first date, especially if you’ve said…


I don’t know what cheeky comments Max was making – oh we do love a man who makes us laugh, don’t we, my fellow basics? – but I’m sure they were very droll and charming. That his eyes get a mention too is a dead giveaway. The eyes have it, and the mouth wants it. Compare and contrast Max’s reply, in which he could be describing his second-favourite sister or a the manager of his local takeaway, and you will see that we appear to have a slight problem here.


“My Friends Are Awful: a Novella.”


RESILIENT like last year’s poinsettia that is somehow still alive, even though you never water it and all the red leaves have dropped off.
SENSITIVE like sunburn or the mood of a room after you tell a sexist joke.
SINCERE like MJ Cole.


KIND like a selfish giant who realise the error of his ways seven-eights into a fairy-tale that ends badly for him.
HANDSOME like all the men who never want you and all the men you’ll never be.
FUNNY like that one episode of Girls On Top you remember, probably from the first series when Tracey Ullman was still in it.



OK, so I’m a little puzzled here, because when Max says “interested” does he mean he was actually interested in Tamara, or merely that she seemed to think he was interested? These are two very different propositions and one of them is good and the other is bad.

Perhaps this is where the “frightfully British” comes in, whatever the hell that means. Maybe, out of politeness, Max acted like he was interested in Tamara for the sake of the date, and the fact it would be in a magazine. Perhaps he really wanted to say something else. Maybe he’s just saying he appeared interested in what she had to say, which always sounds like it’s actually a lie, and that he wasn’t really, but managed to put up a decent performance.

Who knew a throwaway use of “interested” could throw up such a dilemma? I’m stumped.

When someone says things like “frightfully British”, I imagine they mean posh, boorish, with a myopic worldview and an unhealthy obsession with gin as a personality replacement – I wouldn’t go chasing after it round the room as a compliment



Not. This. Again.

Why are women obsessed by straight men thinking they talk too much? What is this twisted world we live in, where a man gets to sit there, say three things and grunt the way through the rest of his life while women, anxious to fill the gaps left by this “strong silent type” feel they must apologise for doing what any normal human would do – talk?

I don’t know where the magic, safe area is between not saying enough and talking too much. I either say too little and come across as unsociable or throw myself into it and gabble on, until I notice, among the people I’m talking to, eyes meeting each other as if to say “When is he going to shut up?” The amount we talk and the level of guilt we feel about it is such a ridiculous stick to beat ourselves with. Sometimes, we get round this by blaming the other person. “I couldn’t get a word in,” we’ll say when we made no effort, or “He just sat there and said nothing,” we claim, when talked on and on and on about ourselves. Usually, however, we pin it on ourselves. “He must’ve thought I was a total idiot; I didn’t shut up all night.”

There’s nothing wrong with being a “chatterbox”. Talking a lot, having things to say, well it’s better than keeping it all in. Because saying nothing instead of talking regularly leads to resentment, and it can only simmer for a while. And then, once the floodgates open… well. You get Brexit, basically. Silent majorities, however, are usually anything but.

As Ronan Keating bleated, “You say it best, when you say nothing at all” – perhaps we should all just stop talking altogether.



The absolute state of the modern man in 2016.


Oh, Tamara. So we see Max was right, she did think he was interested. Did she get that feeling from things Max did – “he was attentive” – or just her own wishful thinking? I think we know, don’t we?

First dates are tricky because if you’re not into them, you don’t want to ruin the evening for them, unless you are a garbage person, but you don’t want to lead them on either. Maybe he was just being a gentleman. I don’t know. I am finding it difficult to get inside their heads this week.

I suppose if he weren’t into her and had kissed her and given her false hope, it would’ve been worse, no? But for heaven’s sake – just kiss the girl!

I’m a big fan of going in for the kiss if you feel it would be reciprocated, whatever your feelings about them, because a kiss is a kiss and kissing is hot. But not everyone is me, and this is why my kissing scorechart was only ever averaging a 75% hit rate. 100% if I had Tom Ford fragrance on, FYI.

Using a boxing workout as an excuse, though, will I ever recover?


You know why? Because you talked about a load of boring old shit.

I can see it all up there. Loch Ness Monster, travelling, grandmothers. We talk like this on dates because we are worried about giving ourselves away, of shining an unflattering light on ourselves. What we do for fun, to “let our hair down”, is so personal, and revelatory, that we rarely divulge it easily. How we get our kicks, be it take loads of drugs and dance on speakers, ride a pony, watch boxsets, go to swingers’ clubs or whatever, are usually the most niche, or quirky things about us. We know they can be a turn-off, that’s why we like doing them, because they’re about indulging ourselves, our own pleasures, not – for ONCE in our fucking miserable, servile lives – for the gratification of others.

I have a feeling here Max is looking for that mythical “cool girl“, all boyfriend jeans and sun blushed hair, excellent at playing pool and laughing at all his jokes and never asking why he hasn’t texted. The cool girl is a fantasy, but if she did exist, she’d be off on the back of some other guy’s motorbike, not making eyes at recruitment consultants. I’m sorry, but it’s true.


Max. A gentleman indeed. 7. This 7 is the bullet that killed Bambi’s mother. It’s Diana meeting Dodi Fayed, Madonna marrying Guy Ritchie, Anna not winning Big Brother. This is a text returned without a kiss at the end.


Damn fucking right it doesn’t, Tamara. Not on this date anyway. This is sad because while Max hasn’t done anything explicitly wrong that I can see, there’s an undercurrent that I feel quite unsettling and disappointing. It’s OK not to like someone as much as they like you. I would maybe have nudged that 7 up to an 8, though, and saved the “just friends” for a text later – especially if you knew she was interested in you, and that you’d given off that impression. That’s a real gentleman.

It’s the final question. Mourning clothes at the ready. Prepare your best stuff upper lip.





Photograph: Linda Nylind, Alicia Canter, both for the Guardian

Note: All the comments I make are based on the answers the Guardian chooses to publish, which may have been changed by a journalist to make for better copy. The participants in the date are aware editing of answers may happen, I assume, and know these answers will appear in the public arena.  This isn’t about me thinking these two people are bad people – I don’t know them. I am sure, in real life, they’re great. I’m critiquing the answers, not the people themselves. If you are the couple in this date, please do not take this personally; I don’t see the date in advance so my reactions are my first ones. I imagine Max was charming and Tamara couldn’t give a shit whether he liked her or not. If you want to give your side of the story,  get in touch and I will happily publish any rebuttal or comments you might have. 

No Comment

  1. Oh Tamara. You didn’t exchange numbers. Of course you’re not going to see him again. I strongly suspect you can do better.

    I get a whiff of gas lighting/manipulation from Max tbh.

Leave a Response