Impeccable Table Manners

Oliver and Elizabeth

As my friends and I stagger arthritically through middle age, we’re becoming more conscious of our attempts to cling onto youth and younger people’s perceptions of it. Our trainers are still pristine and our jeans still skinny and, though some of us have children, the fun pool has yet to be drained. My teenage godson stares on with not-so-silent mortification on the Sundays I go round to his parents’ house and dance to house music in the kitchen, swigging from cans of beer and laughing like drains at old in-jokes from before he was born. So, yeah, older people – embarrassing.

Yet when the shoe’s on the other foot, when young people act like they’re ancient and bore you to tears with their mortgages and their corduroy and their fine wines and exclamations – at 22 years old and still smelling faintly of Clearasil – that they’re now a “foodie”, very few bat an eyelid. We might chuck their chin and call them an “old soul” or whatever but it seems the young are allowed to be as pompous and middle-aged as they like. It’s only when the numbers catch up with the spirit that things go awry.

Oliver and Elizabeth

In that vein, today we have Oliver, a 26-year-old MA student – it doesn’t say what in, but let’s just say you won’t need to phone Jessica Fletcher for a clue once you start reading – and Elizabeth, 25, a paralegal. Read what happened on the date, and try to explain why the room you’re in suddenly smells of dusty old libraries, before I go in and take notes. And scalps.

Oliver | Elizabeth
What were you hoping for?
How about Joan Greenwood in Whisky Galore?

Joan Greenwood has been dead for almost 30 years. I only know Joan from playing the insane landlady in rowdy, ’80s sitcom Girls On Top, and I would quite like to go on a date with *that* character. I don’t know what it says about Oliver that he’s picked his ideal woman from a 1949 movie, but I guess whatever it is, he’s trying hard to make you understand it.

I feel a bit funny about fancying the deceased. I realise an actor in a movie is a moment in time, forever frozen, but I like my objects of desire to be alive and walking about somewhere – it’s nice to think it might just happen, one day.

No such luck with our Joan, however.

What were you hoping for?
To meet someone I wouldn’t ordinarily choose.

*Blankety Blank “you’re automatically through to the final round” noise*

First impressions?
My expectations were trumped: she was charming.

This is probably the last answer Oliver gives that you won’t need to fire up the Oxford Dictionary for, so buckle up.

He seemed slightly shy, but I’d put that down to nerves.

Shy boys. They seem so charming at first. You tell yourself that shyness is sweet, and that once you get him home and pour gin down his throat and put on a mixtape, he’ll come out of his shell and be a wild animal. And sometimes that is true.

Other things that come out of their shell: snails. Beware the shy guy.

What did you talk about?
The opera, law students… I probably held forth on topics inane and mundane! Marginalia, for goodness sake.

Here you go. Oliver’s 26. I am willing to bet the number of New Balance trainers in his (antique, and by antique I mean falling to bits) wardrobe is precisely zero.

Living abroad, his bee-keeping and morris-dancing hobbies, musical siblings.

Christ. I can almost hear Elizabeth glugging a large Merlot back in one from here.

Have you ever asked someone what their hobbies are? And have they ever answered anything other than “Oh, you know, the usual. Errrrrrrr. Going out, socialising.” I really admire – envy, even  – people who can say something else but I can’t help but equate a high hobby count to a deficiency somewhere else.

Any awkward moments?
Perhaps I shouldn’t have begun pondering my utopia.

Tom Hiddleston saying what is this shit

Oliver is doing an MA, everyone. It’s costing him an awful lot of money, so he’d just like to remind you that he’s doing it and this is why he talks like he just got his tongue trapped in a Jupiter-sized poetry anthology.

I love clever people but this feels like a rehearsal for a round on QI that would have me switching over to Hollyoaks pretty quickly.

Any awkward moments?
Not that I can think of.

Elizabeth = too drunk to remember.

It’s table manners next and oh God oh God oh God.

Good table manners?
An absurd question. Am I the paragon of forksmanship?

Man looking confused

Just answer the fucking question, Samuel Pepys.

Good table manners?
Even when cutting up the shared unboned sea bass.

Woman rubbing temples

“Shared, unboned sea bass.”

Sharing food on a date is bad enough – having to wade through bones to get to it is a nightmare. You should never share food with someone you don’t know that well. Strangers don’t understand your complicated portion requirements. They won’t sympathise that you almost always sacrifice the prime bit of meat when sharing food with pals, so would actually like a turn on it this time. They don’t care you only had two forkfuls and they had five. You are nothing to them; you’re not in their life. You’re just getting in the way of a FULL sea bass.

Never share or bone anything with anyone you won’t be sharing and boning the very same night.

And I’m sure it’s not a spoiler to say these two will not be rolling like thunder or even shortcrust pastry by the end of the evening.

A few of my friends would get along really well with Oliver.

“I have one friend who makes sculptures out of unpaid gas bills, still keeps handkerchiefs up his pullover sleeves and can’t sit down to dinner without telling you the origins of everything you’re about to eat, because he was dropped on his head as a child. They’d get along.”

Describe Elizabeth in three words:
Sincere, intelligent, gentle.

Say what you want about Oliver – and I’m sure plenty of people do as he wanders around Waitrose dressed like Sherlock Holmes at a NASUWT barbecue – but at least he’s not used any of his answers to have a dig at his date, no matter how much eye-rolling there may have been.

That said, most of his answers are about himself, so make of that what you will. While he may look like a fragile soul who only exposes himself to natural light for three days around Michaelmas, I reckon Oliver is not averse to an hour in front of the mirror practising his eyebrow waggling.

Best thing about Oliver?
His passion for literature and the natural world.

Elizabeth, too, is sweet here. Oliver, strangely, is not asked this question. I imagine there wasn’t room for it in the ridiculously small space the column is afforded each week – he doesn’t half bang on.

What do you think she made of you?
Bumbling and garrulous? I was swept up in the excitement.

Chatty, basically. Reading this, I find myself longing for simple things. I want to eat a really boring sandwich. Go to Nuneaton. Watch an episode of Bargain Hunt. Queue up in a train buffet car behind a man with skull tattoos. Talk in slang.

What do you think he made of you?
Probably not his type.

Lady Mary saying spoilers

Did you go on somewhere?
No, but I think we tried the patience of the staff at the restaurant, who were keen to shut up shop.

Hahaha. Given Oliver takes three sentences – with a healthy set of dashes, parentheses and, oh I don’t know, glottal stops – to say he talked too much, I bet the waiters were wondering whether they’d ever get out of there alive.

“No, you go ask them if they want coffee – I asked them if they wanted pudding and it took an hour of head scratching and sign language to realise he was asking me if the soufflé was made with French eggs.”

We talked on the train.

Unicorn saying there is no way out

If you could change one thing, what would it be?
“And there among the grass fell down, by his own scythe the mower mown.”In short, my demise was my own doing.

“In short” – imagine sitting opposite Oliver and him starting a sentence with “In long…”. You’d be texting your goodbyes to loved ones, wouldn’t you?

Elizabeth has a nice burn for the restaurant where she ate her free meal, but I am desperate to get to the scores because I simply can’t anymore.

Marks out of 10?
I couldn’t reduce Elizabeth to a numeral! But, to conciliate your readership, 10.

Whichever way you look at it, Oliver is something of a sweetheart. A bumbling, garrulous, absolute disaster of a sweetheart, but a sweetheart nonetheless.

Top marks also to Elizabeth. While she may now face extensive dental bills from grinding her teeth in sheer frustration, any lesser person – one of the usual attention-seekers dying to look good in a magazine – would’ve thrown a guy like Oliver to the wolves. Sometimes it’s nice to be a good person. Or so I’ve read.

Dare we ask if they’ll meet again?

Would you meet again?
I would like to.

Oh, petal. Back to your marginalia for you, I reckon. Elizabeth? Am I wrong?

It was a friend-zone situation.

Shakira as a bride, dropping bouquet

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. Or, in the case of Oliver, edited down from a novella. There’s only one bloody page, you know. The participants in the date are aware this may happen, I assume, and know these answers will appear in the public arena. I am sure, in real life, they are cool people. I am critiquing the answers, not the people themselves. If you are the couple in this date and want to give your side of the story, get in touch and I will happily publish any rebuttal. 

Photograph: Graham Turner; Sarah Lee, both for the Guardian

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  1. ‘a fragile soul who only exposes himself to natural light for three days around Michaelmas’

    Sentence of the week. Superb.

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