Could it be that Torquemada missed a trick? No one who has studied the formbook could question the old boy’s inventiveness in coming up with new and exciting methods of inflicting pain nor accuse him of stinting in their application. But even a master such as he can nod, which might explain how he overlooked the dinner party.
Had he included it in his armoury, I have no doubt that his record, though impressive, would have been better still, putting him firmly at the top of the averages with more shredded human husks to his name than any other contender, with the possible exception of John Humphrys.
Picture the scene: the subterranean chamber is dank, its glistening walls lit by guttering torchlight; the torturer is turned out in the regulation leather mask and matching breeches and stripped to the waist as convention requires; he is also fat, hairy and sweaty, again as prescribed in the rules. The victim stretched on the rack has known better days. His began with the speciality of the house, the strappado, which required him to be suspended by his wrists and have weights of increasing bulk attached to his feet. After that he was stretched a little more on the rack and, following the tea interval, had burning coals pressed against the soles of his feet.
All this he bore with the weary resignation of one who rightly suspects that Fate, having served him a bad egg for breakfast, was merely limbering up. But worse is to come. Suddenly the air is rent with pitiful cries: “No, no, anything but that, I beg you, I beg you, no!” But his tormentors show no mercy. The dinner party invitation is thrust into his trembling hand and all hope dies.
The dinner party is without question the most cruel and unnatural form of torture yet devised. Forget man’s inhumanity to man, this is suburban hostess’s inhumanity to man, and it is far, far worse. From the devious choice of guests to the sadism of the seating plan, the experience is one guaranteed to strain the nerves of the strongest man and reduce him to a gibbering jelly. The lasagne turns to ashes in his mouth and the Sainsbury’s chardonnay to vinegar. Obliged to listen, captive and defenceless, to a stranger’s views on the terrorist threat or to hear of her children’s educational problems, his eyes assume the distressed and distant look of a deep-frozen haddock.
Nothing could be worse. Or could it? According to a new survey (yes, those dreaded five words portending rubbish), people’s spending habits have “shifted hugely” over the past 40 years. “While spending patterns in the 1960s were characterised by fulfilling basic needs, and in the 1980s by materialism, the trend now is towards personal fulfilment and emotional happiness.”
The research, commissioned by financial services company Mint, says: “Gone are the days when the dinner-party talk centred on what car or what consumer goods we owned. Now it’s all about where we have been, what holidays we have taken, what we have seen or read.”
Asked to choose between having first my fingernails and then my teeth torn out by a masked, overweight slob and listening, between half-hearted forkfuls of monkfish, to a pitiless account of holidays in Borneo or impressions on first looking into Rowling’s Potter, I would unhesitatingly opt for the tongs and count myself blessed.
But do not despair. What I describe is merely a survey or, put another way, a bad dream, which is much the same thing. Examined more closely, the research draws on four main sources of data from the Office of National Statistics. So, plucking here a fine gowan there a bluebell, the researchers have assembled a nosegay and tried to pass it off as an herbaceous border.
The figures show, for instance, that we now spend more on air travel and outdoor and camping equipment than we used to do, and more too on dating agencies, mobile phones and the internet. But to take this data as the basis for asserting with confidence what people talk about at dinner parties is stretching a point.
There are occasions when anecdotal evidence far surpasses empirical research, and this is one such. No one, either in marketing or out of it, can possibly accept that we have ceased to be materialistic or, as the report has it, that “doing is more important than having”.
I doubt there has ever been a more materialistic age than ours or a greater obsession with getting and spending. Stratospheric consumer indebtedness is proof of just how insatiable our appetite for consumption has become.