A Scottish-themed dinner party unravels when a drunken guest heckles a bagpiper, showing that most New Yorkers still prefer their Scotch in a glass rather than a kilt, says Daisy Prince
ONE OF THE remaining effects of the Great Recession of 2008 in New York is that it drove a lot of entertaining underground. Big charity parties where Master of the Universe types competed with each other to show off how much money they had in a big, splashy way seemed uncouth and, even worse, uncool after millions had lost their jobs. New York’s nightlife became progressively more low-key. Slews of prohibition-style speakeasies opened downtown and uptown ushered in the era of the salon.
Traditionally, New York is not a city renowned for holding refined evenings, as they did in 18th-century Paris, where participants knowingly tried to follow Horace’s definition of these gatherings ‘either to please or to educate’. Americans tend to take their culture very seriously and therefore cultural occasions tend to be full of gravitas and easily can become pompous. In England, high culture is often viewed as just the opposite — most of my friends would see a trip to the opera as an opportunity to wear their new suit and would make jokes about excessive warbling throughout the performance. Neither strikes me as a particularly balanced approach.
As an American who spent a significant amount of time in England, I felt caught in cultural cross-hairs recently when Hugh and I were invited to a Scottish-themed dinner. Naturally, I just assumed that Scottish-themed meant that everyone would talk about the number of times they’d been stag stalking in Perthshire and drink excessive amounts of Talisker — but it turns out we were in for a more instructional evening than we’d bargained for.
Our host, an attractive and intellectually curious man in his mid-thirties, had taken the trouble to invite an American bagpipe player who was not only going to perform for us but, it transpired, would also discuss the history of bagpipes and wood flutes in the US. Good idea in principle; in practice it worked out a little differently.
Problems arose because the host misjudged the format. It would have been better to load up the group on culture before dinner, rather than letting them get stuck into the cocktails. Additionally, one of the guests was not the ‘stay silent and let teacher talk’ type. Thus the evening descended into a weird accidental double act between the bagpipe player and one rather rude (yet kind of hilarious) guest.
After an extremely healthy drinking hour(s) we sat down for dinner. The menu was Scottish with an American twist: beetroot salad followed by a nice juicy hunk of Angus steak, finished with chocolate cake and raspberries. Conversation flowed, as did the red wine, and at some point it became apparent that one of the guests was rather over-served.
She had introduced herself to me earlier in the evening as a ‘Russian, Jewish, aristocratic Texan who grew up in Switzerland’, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Turns out she spent part of her upbringing in England, which became clear when she started knocking back the drink like a Cheltenham Ladies’ College refugee at Boujis. I suspect she might also have had a head-start before we’d arrived, because it’s rare to see someone that pissed on Chablis.
Plates were cleared and the rest of the guests sat quietly while the bagpipe player started on a tune called Mo Run Geal Og about the battle of Culloden. It was a long, rather plaintive piece, and bagpipes in a small-ish space always make an strong impact. After he finished playing, he gave a rather earnest and protracted lecture about the importance of the battle and the horror of the Clearances. The table politely waited for him to finish his lecture, but cracks were beginning to appear as the drunk Texan said loudly to her neighbour: ‘Whatz he sayin’? I don’t understand.’
SEEMINGLY UNPETURBED, THE piper carried on. Next there was a recital with the flute, after which he informed us that American bluegrass had its roots in the Scottish tradition and spoke passionately about his love for that music.
The drunk Texan swayed slightly in her seat — everyone was watching her to see if she would fall off her chair or even be sick. There was no helping it — the guest had stolen the show from the poor piper. I felt torn between my American upbringing, which made me want to throttle the woman, and my learned English naughtiness, which made me want to giggle uncontrollably.
By the fourth or fifth song, the Texan had reached her limit and finally shouted: ‘Why are we listening to this shit?’ To his credit, the bagpiper didn’t waver a second and, after a last rousing Strathallan’s Lament, he packed up the pipes. Thankfully, the drunk Texan had disappeared and the rest of the guests sheepishly thanked the bagpiper for his time.
Maybe New York’s just not the right place for high-minded salons. For the time being it might be better to stick to Gossip Girl-themed parties.
Read more by Daisy Prince