Long before Covid, it was bad enough when people (often City big dogs at ‘Notting Hill kitchen suppers’) would ask ‘So, do you do anything, or are you just a mum?’ during my childbearing years.
Now, however, the pandemic has induced such chronic poverty in conversation that I recall those thrilling exchanges about house prices and schools as if I’d been at the Algonquin Round Table and not some dull catered dinner at a hedge-funder’s ‘mansion’. What a difference a long lockdown makes, eh.
Nobody has done anything or gone anywhere. All the craic has been about box sets… the time your Asos parcel went Awol… how you got a scam text from DHL… your attempt to cut your own hair after you’d had a takeaway negroni. Fair enough. I developed a mania for Spiral (at present I am in the thick of Call My Agent, French subtitles on) and became so irritating I would have divorced myself if I could. Yet 21 June, Independence Day, looms.
It’s high time someone reset the post-lockdown rules of casual conversation, and I hereby appoint myself for this important national service. In ascending order of aggravation, here are the banned topics:
1) The vaccine. As the majority have now received Covid-19 vaccinations, it is not interesting to discuss how many of which jab you’ve had, or whether you got a sore arm or felt a bit rubbish but only for a day or two.
2) Holidays. The hairdresser’s question ‘Going anywhere nice?’ (or the barber’s ‘Something for the weekend, sir?’) opens up a world of pain and uncertainty for us all, especially me. I don’t want to hear you ask me to ‘find out’ — and we all know what that means — whether Corfu or Crete will be on the green or amber list come July.
3) Any mention of working from home. I don’t want either to see you or picture you or your bookshelves and cheese plant in your home office on Zoom. Just no.
But the big one for me is the default conversational topic which to my mind is lazier than ‘Are you just a mum?’ or ‘What do you do?’ It so maddens me that I was driven to email Debrett’s: ‘Am doing a piece for The Spectator about conversational topics post-lockdown as there is nothing to talk about. In particular, I am absolutely resistant to answering the question “How are the children?” when they are grown up etc, but there’s not much else around. Do you have someone to guide me through U and Non-U topics? During walks especially it’s boring to have to go through their CVs.’
A reply came from the etiquette expert’s Lucy Hume: ‘If talking about your children, do so only to complain, and refrain from showing off about their achievements.’
Truth is, I would far rather spend hours talking to complete strangers on my LBC show about smart motorways than five minutes with auld acquaintances responding to their stock queries about my children: what they are doing, where they are living und so weiter. ‘People assume that you as a mother will be absolutely obsessed by your children and think they are being polite by asking,’ explains Mary Killen of this parish. ‘Don’t forget people have got nothing to say.’
Of course, beloved grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles and so on are excluded from my fatwa, but when people who’ve never met my adult children say ‘So tell me all about what they’re all up to’, I have to restrain myself from snapping: ‘One, they’re not children any more, and two, you have no idea who they even are.’
As well as my bad temper, there have been further consequences of the verbal drought that has attended the viral pandemic. A little less conversation has led to a lot more action. There has been a double-digit rise (no dirty double-entendre intended) in sales of Durex condoms, the manufacturer Reckitt has just announced, which doesn’t surprise me. Given the choice, I’m not surprised that people prefer to exchange body fluids than trivia.
For those who don’t want to go that far, meeting socially in person throws up genuine challenges, given nobody has any gossip or anecdotes and there is no fresh answer to the ‘What have you been up to?’ question since we have all been cowed into sheeplike compliance with Covid restrictions.
‘I have always enjoyed meeting friends for lunch or dinner, sometimes in a restaurant, sometimes in my house or theirs, but now I’m nervous about doing so,’ Jenni Murray revealed to Daily Mail readers recently. ‘Will it be safe? Will it be legal? Will we have anything to talk to them about apart from Line of Duty?’
We will — and here’s how. It used to be the case that sex, religion and politics were the traditionally forbidden topics. ‘One of our taboo topics was sex, but those who’ve been stuck at home with family might enjoy a vicarious taste of romance,’ agreed Lucy Hume, when I asked her about the matter. With permission from Debrett’s, I am placing all these topics firmly back on the menu.
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