Lisa Markwell: Let's not abandon the dinner party – how else can I catch up on real gossip?


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The Independent Online

One glance at the dirty dishes after a mid-week dinner party and it would be easy to agree with the YouGov survey announced yesterday that 40 per cent of us can't face the hassle or expense. After a dash home from work to tidy up, lay the table and throw together a shepherd's pie (homespun end result but with laborious preparation, which I always forget), by 10.30pm I'm wishing my guests would bugger off so I could go to bed. Then there's the clearing up...

For all that, there's something rather dispiriting about the idea of people across Britain sitting quietly in their kitchens, eating alone, as the age of the dinner party passes into history. Dinner parties – whether formal affairs with placements and tablecloths, cheese courses and decanters – or the more modern embodiment, the "kitchen supper", are part of the fabric of society. Without them the social discourse disappears. Yes, we can follow our friends on Twitter to catch their witty verdict on The Bridge, and we can see their holiday snaps on Facebook, but there's no satisfactory replacement for actual, you know, conversation; the kind that meanders around from the local book festival to movie gossip to politics.

OK, so that mid-week dinner party at my house was disproportionately high on school-in-special-measures-shocker and the shoes that have just gone on sale at Zara, but it was catching up with friends that really mattered.

The cost is a legitimate anxiety. The survey states that the average dinner party costs £60 and most of us hold six of them a year. My own profligacy/show-off tendencies put me at the upper end of their stats, I reckon, but there's no doubt that everyone – apart from the most haute of hostesses – is feeling the pinch. My own solution is to use Sunday's leftover roast lamb for the shepherd's pie and buy wine when it's on special offer and tuck it away.

I do agree that performance anxiety gets the better of many would-be hosts. With wall-to-wall cookery shows on TV, who'd want to present their pasta with pesto in front of an ardent Great British Menu fan? But those shows are entertainment, not how-to videos. It'd be a very strange guest expecting salmon and caviar rolls with candied celery.

I once met Jamie Oliver and, on my husband's instructions, invited him round for dinner, on the assumption that no one else does. Sure enough, he says he never does get asked round, because everyone thinks their food isn't good enough.

But that's the point – dinner parties aren't actually about the food at all. Some of the best ones revolve around a large bowl of Doritos and a jug of mojitos; which is stretching the term dinner party to its limits, I agree, but it was a top night. I still want people to Come Dine with Me – not least because my children learnt to converse – which they do brilliantly – watching the grown-ups at our dinner table.

Don't let anyone steal your stories

Today is the funeral of a dear friend's father. John Dyson was a writer whose accounts of adventurers, particularly in the polar regions, were always absorbing and incisive; it's worth searching out his book The South Seas Dream: an Adventure in Paradise.

A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he loved nothing more than intrepid journeys to far-away places, notebook in hand. He wasn't particularly famous but he was an inspiration for quite a few journalists of my acquaintance (not least me).

I learnt one hack's trick from him the hard way. On his daughter's wedding day, when I, as maid of honour, was rehearsing my speech in the study at the family home, John came in, to read through his father-of-the-bride speech. "Ah, Lisa," he said in his soft New Zealand tones, "you don't mind if I use a couple of those stories in my speech, do you?" I was, as they say, speechless. And I never made that mistake again.