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03 September 2012

The diplomacy of dinner

I've just read two very different but good books. Accepting the inherent risk of judging them by their covers, the WWII history and Dutch novel couldn't be more different. As it turns out, they share a central theme: the power of the table as a diplomacy tool.

The Dinner by Herman Koch is the narrator's perspective of one meal, eaten with his wife, brother and sister-in-law. The meal takes place in what is clearly a fayn dayning restaurant in Amsterdam. The narrator, Paul Lohman, is keen to be anywhere but the restaurant he is in, he longs for the ribs and fries at the cafe nearby, rather than the plates of white space he is served, but this is a meal he cannot afford to miss. The reason is that the turn of conversation at dinner will determine the future of people very close to both couples. There's an awful lot riding on the niceties of the meal, the way the wine is poured and whether anyone has dessert. 

The book is a devastating read, as a parent and brother, I found it quite disturbing. Koch beautifully unfolds the story and carefully lays out how both families ended up where they are. Whilst the situation is ultimately extreme, it drives home the fine line between madness and parenting.

I didn't find Cita Stelzer's Dinner with Churchill particularly beautiful to read, the editing was rather cack handed, but the argument is well made. Churchill was convinced of the importance of a good meal in diplomacy.  

Winston was a bit of a gourmand. He wanted the best of everything and largely got it. He was it turns out a stickler for the seating plan and was a dab hand at interior design if dining room at Chartwell is anything to go by. He clearly viewed matters of stomach as synonymous with matters of state. 

Both books make a persuasive argument that sitting down over a meal is one way try to win an argument. The formalities determine a rhythm and it takes hard work for there to be no conviviality when decent food and wine is involved. However, what The Dinner and Dinner With Churchill make clear is that however good the victuals and libations, what ultimately matters is who you are dining with. Your enemy is your enemy however many courses there are.

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