If only I'd had Major General James Cowan to coach me before I'd gone to dinner at one of Britain's grandest stately homes. Given that this was not a familiar environment to me, I can hardly be blamed for not knowing the rules of engagement, but I had never even heard of the practice of “turning”, in which the hostess will turn to the person on her right and strike up conversation, and the other women at the table will follow her lead. In this way, no one is excluded from conversation. At some point after first course, the hostess will then turn to talk to the person on her left, and the other women do the same.
Unaware as I was of this custom, I thought the woman next to me - a Lady, as it happens - was unbelievably rude when, in the midst of one of my highly entertaining anecdotes, she turned her back on me and started talking to the man on her other side. “... and then the waiter shouted: I've only got one pair of hands!” The denoument of my story was left in the ether, and then the woman to my right asked me if I'd come far.
Anyway, Maj Gen Cowan knows all about “turning”, and has taken it upon himself to be the British army's etiquette expert. The man who commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is now giving orders of a more delicate nature, instructing officers on such topics as table manners, and how to host a successful dinner party. In a letter which he sent to a handful of colleagues, but has now got a vastly wider airing, he rails against “frankly barbaric techniques” of eating in the officers' mess, and says that “the practice of serving rolls and sandwiches in the mess has to stop. A gentleman or lady,” he adds, “uses a knife and fork.”
The temptation, of course, is to regard Maj Gen Cowan as a throwback to the time of Empire, his strictures having no place in the modern world. But society without rules doesn't function, and etiquette - a word that itself speaks of a bygone era - is merely about showing respect and putting others at ease. Very often, too, the customs and practice make good sense. “Turning” may sound like a bit of a performance, but it's done for very good, practical reason (and not just so that someone doesn't have to listen to me all night.)
But times change, and the rules must reflect the mores of the age. My 2014 version of the Major General's advice for dinner party behaviour would be less about how to hold your knife and fork, but would include the following: never mention how much your house is now worth, don't talk about your journey into work, or about schools to people without children, and refrain from looking mid-conversation at your text messages. And I am grateful to Debrett's, the experts on all such matters, for this one, a particular bugbear of mine: “Texting to say you are running late does not stop it being bad manners because you are still late.” Or, as Major General Cowan would have it, punctuality means politeness. Yes, Sir!