The great dinner party divide

🥩 Steak tartare | 🔫 Leaders' schooldays | 👑 Royal Crescent


A one-table discussion in Notting Hill (1999)

The great dinner party divide

At a dinner party in London last weekend, says Gillian Tett in the FT, a friend politely asked the other guests if they would be happy having a “single table conversation”. The multinational crowd of politicians, business leaders and journalists agreed, and a passionate debate ensued about “the most important topics of the moment” – Donald Trump, Keir Starmer, and so on. It was fascinating. But almost as interesting was that my friend felt it necessary to ask this question at all. In New York, American professionals take it for granted that dinners become a communal debate. It is a “well-worn ritual”: the starter proceeds with fragmented chatter, then when the main course arrives someone strikes a glass and lays out a topic for discussion, “aspiring to draw everyone in”.

Here in Britain, such conversations are much rarer. When I tried to start one myself a few years ago, I was told to stop because it was “too serious”. My suspicion is that the difference lies in how we view intellectual capital. In the US, the creation of ideas is treated as a vital sphere of economic activity. And since Americans so admire ambition and hustle, this fosters a culture of “performative intellectual display”. In Britain, hustle is not so readily admired, and ambition is “sometimes derided as being pushy or showing off”. If you are brilliantly clever, you are commended not for showcasing your braininess but for concealing it. Personally, I think it’s a shame. The single-table discussions I’ve had have covered a fascinating range of topics, “from quantum computing and anthropology to global trade law”. We buttoned-up Brits are missing a trick.


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The “chicest, most delicious way of eating beef”

Steak tartare is simply the “chicest, most delicious way of eating beef”, says Olivia Potts in The Spectator. It is “mellow and punchy, compact and expansive”. And if you’re used to eating the dish only at a restaurant, then it’s “high time you sharpened your best knife”. Like oysters or lobster, there is something terribly romantic, intimate even, about steak tartare prepared for two and eaten at home. It requires “just the right amount of sophistication of palate”, a certain gastronomic like-mindedness, and an “acceptance of mess”. The unhurried, careful chopping of the meat and its various tart and salty accompaniments into little piles of shades becomes quite meditative.

It’s essential to use the best, freshest beef available. I suggest fillet steak, which is lean and tender and can be easily stripped of any remaining fat and sinew. For two people, 200g is plenty. The meat should be cut by hand so that it can be diced as small as possible without being minced. (Popping it in the freezer for 15 minutes makes it far easier to cut.) Finely chop 1 tbsp capers, 2 shallots, 3 cornichons, and 1 tbsp flatleaf parsley and mix with 1tbsp olive oil, 4 dashes of Tabasco, 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce, and plenty of salt and pepper. Divide into two and form each half into a round shape with a small divot in the top. Tip a raw egg yolk into each indentation and serve immediately with French bread, melba toast or, best of all, thin chips and a Martini. Bon appétit.

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Global update

Hezbollah members saluting fallen comrades. AFP/Getty

The deadly threat on Israel’s northern border

While Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza is taking up much of the world’s attention, says Amy Mackinnon in Foreign Policy, there are growing concerns that fighting at the country’s northern border with Lebanon could escalate into full-blown war. In recent weeks the Iran-backed militia Hezbollah has launched thousands of rockets, anti-tank missiles and drones into Israel; the Israeli air force has responded with thousands of airstrikes. Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defence minister, has said that in the event of a total war his country would “return Lebanon to the Stone Age”. But it wouldn’t be that simple.

Hezbollah is “the most heavily armed non-state actor in the world”, with an arsenal of around 130,000 missiles that could quickly overwhelm Israel’s sophisticated air defence systems. Estimates suggest that it could knock out all essential infrastructure – oil refineries, air bases, the country’s nuclear research facility in Dimona – in just three days. Like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah is thought to have developed an extensive tunnel network beneath Lebanon. And unlike in Gaza, its forces could be sustained by Iran via established ground and air supply routes running through Iraq and Syria. The group has also gained “significant battlefield experience” since its last war with Israel, in 2006, fighting alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to prop up Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in his country’s civil war. (One Hezbollah commander called it a “dress rehearsal”.) The Israeli military is not to be underestimated. But be in no doubt: Hezbollah is “a far more formidable foe than Hamas”.


Churchill as a Harrow schoolboy in 1889. Print Collector/Getty

Why Nelson stole his headmaster’s pears

I love the childhood chapters of historical biographies, says Dominic Sandbrook in The Times. It tells you something, for example, that as a lonely 10-year-old at a French military academy, Napoleon took refuge in stories of Rome’s heroes, “dreaming of victories of his own”. There’s no better clue to the character of his great adversary, Horatio Nelson, than his nocturnal excursion from Paston School in Norfolk to steal pears from the headmaster’s garden. He didn’t like pears, he said. He only took them because “every other boy was afraid”. William Pitt the Elder recalled Eton prefects marching new boys into the countryside and giving them a 10-yard head start before shooting at them with pistols. (William Pitt the Younger was educated at home.)

Other leaders were formed by how miserable school made them. Robert Cecil, later Lord Salisbury, was a star in the classroom at Eton, but tearfully reported that he was “bullied from morning to night”. Every day four bigger boys would “kick and shin” him, while another liked to spit in his face at breakfast. His biographer Andrew Roberts remarked that the experience left the future prime minister with a “profoundly bleak view of human nature and therefore of democracy”. Stanley Baldwin said that after his years at Harrow, nothing would ever persuade him to enjoy “the company of schoolmasters”. More recent leaders are rather dull by comparison. Churchill insisted on keeping a bulldog, in flagrant contravention of Harrow’s rules. Rishi Sunak smuggled a tiny TV into Winchester to watch Euro 96. Keir Starmer says, with characteristic vividness, that his old classics master taught him “much more than Latin”. As in so much of life: in British politics, “if you want to understand the man, you should start with the boy”.


“A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but as a group decide nothing can be done.”
Ranulph Fiennes

That’s it. You’re done.