The Weasel

An insatiable appetite for tulips leads to insights into how the other half live, and we learn the correct way to sit a gay couple at a dinner party
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LIKE A star-struck bobby-soxer, Mrs Weasel has been raving about `Bing Crosby'. She's also expressed an unlikely passion for `Attila', `Professor Rontgen' and `General Eisenhower'. Before you suggest that my dear spouse should lie down in a darkened room with an eau-de-cologne compress, I should explain that these are all all cultivars of the genus Tulipa. Her late-flowering lust was ignited by my colleague Anna Pavord's gorgeous book on the monarch of spring blooms (The Tulip, Bloomsbury, pounds 30). Last weekend, in order to catch these long-stemmed beauties at their best, Mrs Badger weaseled me - oh, you know what I mean - into driving her down to Sissinghurst Castle in the lush heartland of Kent.

We weren't alone in making our way to this bucolic spot. Sissinghurst is one of the National Trust's most-visited properties, but it didn't feel too crowded late on Saturday afternoon. Sure enough, tulips dominated the vernal fireworks. Mrs W was soon showing off in the manner patented by amateur plantswomen the world over. "Oh, how lovely, that's `Black Parrot'," she trumpeted, pointing out a host of murky blooms, each tight- furled like a City gent's brolly. "And this is `Aladdin'," she jabbed at a regiment of scarlet and yellow flowers with sharp, jagged petals like flint arrowheads. "Aren't they stunning?"

But by this stage she was talking to herself. Seeking a breather from tulipomania, I had scuttled through a doorway into a musty, book-lined room. Unfortunately, the National Trust does not allow visitors the same generous access to Sissinghurst's library as it does to the garden. We plebs are allowed to go only a few feet beyond the doorway. It is, however, possible to peer at the bookshelves on either side of the door. On one side, the radical titles included Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution and a biography of Lenin. Works on the other side revealed a more morbid inclination: Murder for Profit by William Bolitho, Murder and its Motive by F Tennyson Jesse and Memoirs of a London County Coroner by HR Oswald.

The creators of Sissinghurst - Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson - were respectively known to the public as a Bloomsbury novelist and a Tory MP, but it appears from their book collection that they led a secret existence as murder-obsessed Marxists. When I voiced this opinion, a National Trust guide pointed out that the 4,000 books on the shelves were review copies accumulated over 40 years, and by no means indicative of their personal tastes. I might have responded that not everything about the union of this aristocratic duo was quite as it seemed (see Portrait of a Marriage by their son, Nigel Nicolson, for full details), but by this stage Mrs W had caught up with me and I was lugged back to the flora.

Though Vita was the famous gardener of the household, it was Harold who planted a dazzling stretch of spring flowers called the Lime Walk. His missus was unimpressed by its symmetry: "Like Platform 5 at Charing Cross". From the top of Sissinghurst's tall tower, the garden echoes in miniature the patchwork of surrounding fields. It is doubtful, however, if Vita would approve of the radioactive brilliance of the oil-seed rape that dominates the view at this time of year. Though she intermittently opened her garden to the public, Vita firmly rejected any suggestion that the National Trust should take over Sissinghurst. "Never, never, never... over my corpse or ashes," she declared, which didn't leave a great deal of room for manoeuvre. She died in 1962 and the NT moved in shortly afterwards. From April to October (Mondays excepted), Nigel Nicolson has to share his garden with upwards of 140,000 people. Of course, only the most prying of prodnoses would try to peep into his lovely Tudor cottage. It was completely by mischance that I happened to catch a glimpse of the author's kitchen while admiring a cluster of Tulipa `White Triumphator'. (He likes Carr's Water Biscuits.)

ETIQUETTE IS a self-contradictory concept. I've always thought it was the height of bad manners to boss people about manners, particularly concerning what they should wear. Of course, being scaredy-cats, most of us want to do the right thing and, God knows, there are enough women (they're always women) willing to put us right. In the latest issue of Harpers & Queen, Celestria Noel and Mary Killen offer a few generous spadefuls of advice to save the gauche from social ostracism. Mary expresses grave doubts about bringing a bottle to a dinner party but admits that, in the country, it is acceptable to bring beetroot ("a vegetable few people think of growing, and are therefore delighted to receive"). Would sandwich spread be an acceptable substitute from us townies?

Here's a priceless tip from Celestria for an after-dinner game. "Make a course of cushions and piles of books and tell someone they must memorise it and go round it blindfold. While they are out of the room being blindfolded, you actually remove all the obstacles. Watching them negotiate the non- existent course is hilarious." Forewarned is forearmed if you have the great good fortune to be invited to a soiree chez Celestria.

We're also told that bangers and mash can be served at dinner parties. "More than acceptable, because they are witty," Mary opines. Mind you, it must be "smart butcher's sausages and designer mash - celeriac or swede" for this Wildean repast, so first find yourself a smart butcher. She also sets us right about seating a gay couple. Whatever the sexual orientation, it should still be boy, girl, boy, girl, except in Wiltshire, where "bow- tie-wearing portrait-painter Maggie Hambling is usually seated as the man".

Celestria spills the beans about what to do if your glass is empty at a dinner party. Don't commit the terrible solecism of helping yourself ("it is undignified"). "A good trick is to help yourself ostentatiously to water, as this may jog the host's mind. If that fails, offer water to everyone else as well, causing as much commotion as possible, and, if necessary, asking for more water." This certainly sounds a dignified way of getting more grog.

So, replete with bangers and beetroot, awash with water, battered by blindfold blunderings, how do we express our heartfelt thanks for this feast? Our advisers agree that e-mail or fax will not do. "These are work tools, inappropriate in private life," asserts Mary. Of course, business has its own etiquette. I encountered a book on this very topic a few years ago. "Slumping over the phone devitalises the voice. If you want to sound more assertive, stand up," the authors insisted. "Also smile, albeit faintly, when on the phone. It sounds a quaint idea, but it works."

But these arbiters of bureaucratic politesse failed to make it clear whether the sender should also stand up and smile when they are sending a fax or an e-mail.

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