Brian Viner: 'Dinner parties in rural Herefordshire certainly keep you on your toes'

Home And Away

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One of the differences between our social life in Herefordshire and the one we enjoyed in Crouch End for eight years is that we keep meeting new people. In London N8 there were about half a dozen couples we counted as really close friends, who formed the core of our social life, and whose homes were within about 500 yards of ours. Here, if we drew our closest friends from within 500 yards, we'd be sitting round the dinner table with sheep, pheasants, rabbits, badgers and moles, discussing where Kenneth Grahame got it wrong in The Wind In The Willows.

Last Friday we were invited to dinner by a couple we like very much, but don't know all that well, and who were keen to introduce us to their friends. That happens quite a lot in rural Herefordshire, with the happy consequence that we know a far wider range of people here than we ever did in London. There is much less homogeneity out here, strangely enough, and conversation-wise, this keeps you on your toes. Tottenham's home form, secondary school league tables and Muswell Hill property prices are out; hippie communes in the Welsh Marches, bovine tuberculosis and Catherine of Aragon's stay in Ludlow Castle are in.

On the other hand, meeting new people can be fraught with pitfalls. There were nine of us at dinner last Friday, and towards the end of the evening, while I was engaged at one end of the table in a fascinating conversation with a farmer and a schools inspector, Jane was at the other end being richly entertained by our host, who, it turned out, had spent the late 1960s running a chic menswear shop just off the King's Road, and once measured Mick Jagger's inside leg.

A few moments later, she became aware of a hand on her own leg. It wasn't her host's hand, I hasten to add, and it wasn't mine. Nor was it there for any nefarious purpose. The family's black Labrador had wandered into the room and for a while stationed itself between Jane and the man next to her. While still in deep conversation with our host, Jane patted the dog, which then mooched off to sit in front of the fire. A few seconds passed, and then she felt a hand vigorously rubbing her black suede boot at about calf height. This vigorous rubbing continued for about 45 seconds, rapidly moving up and down her boot. It was followed by about five thumping pats, more like slaps, after which the rubbing started again. Then after another 20 seconds or so, the rubbing stopped abruptly.

Jane ascribes the abrupt stop either to her dog-loving neighbour suddenly spotting the Lab dozing in front of the fire, or to his hand suddenly alighting on metal. Whatever, the realisation that a creature can't be in two places at once, or that Labradors don't have zips, must have hit him with mortifying force. Yet his exquisite faux pas went unmentioned, presumably because he was too embarrassed to apologise for mistaking a woman he scarcely knew for a dog, while Jane, not having talked to him much beyond introducing herself, wasn't sure whether to make light of it or not. If she'd said "please don't stop, I was enjoying that", he might have choked on his passion-fruit tart. Consequently, the first I knew of all this excitement under the table was in the car on the way home, a journey along narrow country lanes which are difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone when you're assailed by hysterical, wheezing laughter.

Anyway, I took great pleasure in relating this story at another dinner party the very next evening (just to extend the metropolitan comparison, invitations to Herefordshire dinner parties are like London buses; you wait in hope for ages and then loads come along at once), this time in more familiar company. We were at the home of our dear friends Avril and Ian, and I knew Ian would sympathise with Jane's neighbour of the night before because he it was who, while sitting one evening in a hot tub in the garden of some other friends a couple of years ago, started sensually massaging my foot beneath the water in the belief that it was Avril's. It was an experience that did nothing to counter my innate suspicion of hot tubs. But far from not mentioning it, I have never let him forget it.

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