For my birthday last Saturday, Jane bought me A Butler's Guide to Table Manners, written by a fellow called Nicholas Clayton, a member of the Guild of Professional English Butlers. Her inscription was " ...because even an expert needs a handbook", the affectionate but slightly waspish joke being that I have always been something of a sergeant major where our children's table manners are concerned.
The military reference is apt, too, because Sunday lunch when the kids were younger quite often turned into a battleground, with me berating one or more of them for eating their meat with their fingers, or licking their knives, or some other appalling breach of etiquette. There was one infamous day, seven or eight years ago, when I ended up scoffing my Sunday roast on my own, the children having run off crying after Jane furiously tipped her almost-full plate into the bin, shouting that she had spent hours preparing a lovely meal for all of us and wasn't going to bloody well sit there while the occasion was wrecked by an argument over table manners, or words to that effect.
She assures me that table-manner dogmatism is a dad thing, that her friends Ali and Kim can report a similar litany of family mealtimes sullied by Chris and Will, their respective spouses, insisting on proper comportment. Naturally, my sympathies lie entirely with Chris and Will. We dads must stick together in the campaign to stop children tucking in before everyone is seated, taking the biggest slice of cake for themselves, and slurping the gravy directly from the plate.
What's strange, though, is that we only have eyes for our own children's transgressions. More than once when we have had other families over for Sunday lunch, Jane has said to me later, "Didn't you see little X eating like a pig while you were looking daggers at Joe for slumping in his chair?". It almost always passes me by.
I shouldn't single out Joe, our middle child, but he is the one who down the years has copped the worst of my irritation, partly because our usual configuration around the kitchen table has him sitting opposite me, poor chap, but also because he has always had firm ideas about what he wants to put in his mouth and how. Once, in a London street, Jane swiped a huge wet bogey from his lip. He went purple with indignation. "Hey," he bellowed, "I was going to eat that!" In fairness, he was only three at the time. He's 13 now and has moved on, bogey-wise.
His mother, meanwhile, inclines to the Gallic view of meal etiquette. Jane believes that eating should be a wonderful sensory experience, and if that sometimes means children picking up meat with their fingers, so be it. "It can hamper your enjoyment of food if you're worried about where your elbows are," she says, adding that the French never worry about that sort of thing. I can see the logic of that, and am much less of a mealtime martinet than I was, but Jane's birthday present to me could yet backfire horribly on the family. Mr Clayton the butler insists that the pudding spoon should approach the mouth at a different angle from the soup spoon, and I am very tempted indeed, when next we all sit down to Sunday lunch, to have a protractor standing by.
With an hour to fill while visiting London on Monday afternoon, Joe and I went with my mother to the Wallace Collection, to see the Osbert Lancaster exhibition. Joe is good at drawing and I hoped he might be inspired by some of the great Osbert's work, which he was, although I dare say he would have plumped for an hour in Hamleys, given the choice. Which he wasn't. Anyway, it's a terrific little exhibition, and I was delighted to learn there that Lancaster's idol was Max Beerbohm, because Beerbohm is a hero of mine, too. Indeed, in 1988, on receiving my first proper pay packet, I took the uncharacteristically far-sighted decision to spend more of it than I could reasonably afford on a piece of art, and after shopping around, I found a Beerbohm caricature for which I paid £400.
Last year, I had it valued by an auction house. The expert there admired it greatly, kept it for a week doing some homework on it, and then gave me his considered opinion that it is now worth somewhere in the region of £400.