A toast to those agreeable old knights of the long tables

MICHAEL COX
Last updated 08:05 30/07/2012

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Michael Cox

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Daube of Beef Bourguignon followed by Peanut Butter and Jelly Creme Brulee, all washed down with some excellent wines constituted the most enjoyable lunch. It was the most glaring example of sexism and ageism that I've attended in many a year.

To be invited one had to be male and a superannuitant. Twenty-two of these carefully selected men, many with leave passes from " 'er indoors", sat down on a recent Friday noon to enjoy the occasion. They left home with threats wringing in their ears that they would be picked up at 3pm sharp!

It was a long table, set up in a local bistro, glinting with the best silver and crystal. The conversation ranged from boasts of sporting prowess from 20, no, make that 30 years ago, to presenting a former mayor with the "stirrer of the year award" for his treatise of complaints about 10 local serving councillors. There were observations that mistakes on the operating table or in board rooms are now blamed on the fact that "the poor old bugger is past it".

The varied careers ranged from the law, surgery, real estate, accounting, horse breeding to the odd politician, although not many of those retire - they are forcibly and democratically put out to pasture and finish up writing opinion columns.

This regular lunch date has markedly calmed down from the time when one attendee's new Holden finished up in the restaurant's swimming pool. They were politely asked not to collectively return. Now the group is positively sedate.

It all took me back to another long-table feast. Sir Keith Holyoake had recently and in a controversial manner been appointed governor-general; controversial because he had been prime minister for a decade or so. The people of New Zealand were used to their governors-general being appointed from the "old country" and being separated from the body politic. Sir Keith wasn't the first to break this mould, but he was definitely seen as a far more political appointee.

So when he invited all the backbenchers and their spouses, didn't have partners in those days, to Government House for a dinner and dance, several of the more principled Labour guys turned down the invitation. Although one of them let slip to me that his wife had told him not to be so bloody ridiculous, “this is the top function of the year, and we're going whether you like it or not”. And so it was. Once again the crystal was out in all its glory. Looking down the long table set out in the ballroom at Government House for 120 guests was a sight for sore eyes. For that night's festivities about 50 footmen had been employed. They were mostly seagulling civil servants, who for 30 bucks were prepared to dress up in breeches, silk jackets and wigs and wait on the body politic.

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After dessert had been dealt with a strange and old fashioned event took place. The footmen approached all the ladies and, holding the backs of their chairs, asked, “would madam care to withdraw?" They didn't expect to be rebuffed and these compliant ladies were to be taken by Lady Holyoake to her personal quarters for petit fours, coffee in very small cups and the raking over of many a politician's private life.

Across from me sat a young female member of Parliament from not a hundred kilometres from here. When asked if she would care to withdraw, her answer was most unladylike. She told the footman just how he could "off" himself. Rebuffed, he tried again, his wig slightly askew. “I said . . . off," she loudly repeated. What a quandary for the guy, probably from Internal Affairs or Customs. After all, he was only carrying out orders.

Sir Keith, ever vigilant to his guests' needs, noticed what was happening at his dinner party. He rescued the flustered footman by bellowing down the table, “Cigar, Marilyn?” She accepted and asked the footman for a light.

At the long table in the Hamilton Bistro nothing was lit up. In fact, those unctuous politicians from 30 years ago have now legislated against those beautiful cigars, all rolled on a maiden's thigh, making them now illegal. They would have rounded off a perfect Friday lunch.

- Waikato Times

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