Eatiquette

I must apologise once again for the scarcity of 2012 blog entries. If I’m not here, or popping up in a rectangle on the Guardian Culture website telling you what I think of a telly programme, or reading out some light-hearted news items on Radio 2’s weekend breakfast show between 7-7.30am, or timewasting on Twitter, you can be pretty sure I’m sitting in a library or coffee shop typing.

The second series of Mr Blue Sky for Radio 4 moves on apace, as they say, and it has little choice, as the deadline for delivery of six brand new half-hour episodes is the end of February. Since you ask, I’m almost through the first draft of Episode 4, but that doesn’t mean it’s finished, as we stacked up many drafts of the four episodes in series one before they were camera-ready, or whatever the radio equivalent is. We’re also having to re-cast one or two of the main parts due to that ol’ devil called availability. (I can confirm that Mark Benton will return to play Mr Blue Sky himself, but other principals are in flux.)

Anyway, I’m relying on Twitter as a form of what we shall quaintly call “staying in touch.” This morning, in need of a break from scriptwriting, I repaired to a Costa with my laptop (I still count it as a “screen break” if it involves a little walk), and threw out a hypothetical.

The response was mixed and interesting, so I thought I might throw it out again here, in a more formal fashion, and without the 140-character discipline. It is yet another question of etiquette and manners, which must be constantly updated and adjusted, so as to properly reflect the world around us, which changes constantly. When I was a teenager, I wore what we shall again quaintly call a “fisherman’s cap” inside the parents’ house of a girl I wished to woo, and it was only afterwards that I was informed of my social faux pas. Her Victorian parents were not impressed by my failure to remove the cap whilst under their roof, and I was oblivious.

It didn’t matter in the long run, as the girl was not in the least bit interested in going out with me, but I remember feeling a bit guilty for doing the wrong thing. As it happens, my hat was pretty securely fixed to my head by way of backcombed and lacquered hair at front and back, but the 19th century parents were not to know that.

Anyway, mobile phones did not exist in the early 80s. Nor did portable computers. And nor did something called “tablet computers.” Etiquette was more about hats and shoes, and taking them off when you went into houses. But things change, and these days, among many other things that annoy me as the author of the 2008 Manners Manifesto, it is increasingly the use, or misuse, or abuse, of phones that gets my goat. But this was new …

I was dining, with a co-diner, in a restaurant [not pictured] the other night. It was a local restaurant, and not “posh”, but it was the evening, and it was a cut above nipping into Pizza Express with a voucher, put it that way. The lighting was low, and candles flickered sensually from each table. This was not a Costa in the afternoon. It was pretty full. Along one wall, tables for two were arranged side by side. This is where we were seated. A solo diner was seated beside us. This diner might have been waiting for somebody to join them, but they were solo on arrival. We, meanwhile, had ordered, and were waiting for the starter.

The solo diner took an iPad out of their bag. They turned it on and started fiddling with it, reading and scrolling and clicking in the usual touchpad manner. The combination of the tilt of the iPad, the diner’s failure to adjust the brightness of the screen (which many on Twitter were quick to point out as a sensible option), the close proximity of the tables, and the low, some-might-say romantic lighting meant that the peripheral distraction caused by the lit-up 9.7-inch screen was more than noticeable, it was a problem.

I ask again: is this socially acceptable behaviour in the candlelit environment of a restaurant in the evening? The diner did not put the iPad away. They were not checking emails, they were using the iPad as a companion. Because the diner was alone, I felt some empathy. I have, in my professional life, dined alone on many occasions, and some of them in quite formal restaurants. As a music journalist, I was often sent off to other countries on my own (not always with a photographer or press chaperone), and as such grew accustomed to going into eating and drinking establishments on my own. I usually took a book, or a newspaper. Electronic versions thereof were not invented.

Had the adjacent diner pulled out a book, or paper, or indeed a Kindle, which emits hardly any vestigial light, I would have given them not another single thought. Indeed, I would have admired their independence. I actually think it’s a heartwarming sight to see someone so self-assured and confident that they are willing to walk into a restaurant, order and eat a meal. Why should they care about what anybody thinks? Go for it.

But the iPad is a new addition to the social armoury. And I personally feel that there is a time and a place for whipping out a glowing tablet, and a restaurant at night, with people sitting either side, is not it.

But I’m always interested in what others have to say on the matter. As I say, I have sympathy with the solo diner, and respect for them, but occupying one’s own space is paramount in mixed social situations. Flashing light around in the dark is just as much of an intrusion as talking loudly, or taking a call on a phone (which, if I owned a restaurant, I would ban outright). The glimpse of an illuminated screen in a cinema out of the corner of your eye is a major irritant. I have asked people with phones on to turn them off in cinemas, if I’ve felt that a knife would not come out. Just ask politely if the patron wouldn’t mind turning off their screen, as it’s distracting you from the film.

In a restaurant, it’s not so clear cut.

You may remember me writing about my dismay in 2008 that a family eating out – this time in a brightly-lit, unromantic Pizza Express – allowed their tiny child to sit with headphones on and watch a cartoon on a portable DVD player. My blog entry wound up a lot of parents, who didn’t see why their enjoyment of a pizza should be spoiled or their evening’s plans inconvenienced just because they’d given birth to a baby. It can be a sensitive issue. I don’t have kids. But I don’t want to be a fascist about it. (By the way, I said nothing on the occasion of the headphoned baby. Didn’t even sneer from a distance, or tut.)

You can re-live the Pizza baby debate here. But your thoughts on this latest conundrum would be welcomed.