Q. I’m shortly to host a very large family gathering. Everyone will be related to the same ancestor, so we will have at least one subject to talk about — but then what? We will be a disparate group, hailing from different places, professions, generations and walks of life, and with nothing much in common apart from our lineage. Most of us will not have met before. I am worried that the conversation will run dry as we cannot bang on about our ancestor for three full days.
—Name and address withheld
A. I note you live within driving distance of Bishop Auckland, so during August you can give your extended family another shared conversational reference. Take them on the night of their arrival, to see the (by common consensus) flabbergasting night show Kynren, in which a cast of 500 volunteers perform a re-enactment of 2,000 years of English history. This is staged by Eleven Arches, the vision of philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, who aims to establish Bishop Auckland as a tourist destination, attracting visitors and investment for the betterment of the area and the empowerment of the community. The mindboggling special effects include a full-scale Viking ship suddenly emerging out of a lake fully equipped with Vikings. To imagine the scale, think the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Watching this spectacle together will give your guests a strong sense of emotional as well as historical bonding. See elevenarches.org for details.
Q. During pre-dinner drinks at a friend’s 21st in Scotland recently, I went up to my friend’s parents and said: ‘This looks fantastic!’ They replied: ‘Thank you but I don’t suppose it will be as good as yours was!’ They said it jokingly but I wasn’t sure how to respond. It’s not the first time that, complimenting a kind host, I have elicited this sort of response. What should I have said?
— S.L., London SW3
A. You can neither agree with their remarks nor deny them, so smile pleasantly as you settle for a gnomic response such as ‘Oh well, we are all sugar and spice, aren’t we?’ Then change the subject.
Q. Many of my friends are going to be 40 this year and I’m dreading the celebratory dinners in restaurants. First the boredom of waiting for 20 or more drunks to decide what they’re going to eat, then the noise levels, then the wait for the food to arrive and then for everyone to chip in their share of the bill. It’s more boring for me because I don’t drink, but I’ve known most of these people for 20 years and they are good friends. I can’t get out of the dinners. What do you suggest?
— Name withheld, Docklands
A. Just say you are going to have difficulty leaving work until late but you will come and join them for a pudding course. Turn up, grab a chair between two good people, eat a pudding and slap down a £20 note as your contribution. No one will quibble.