Posted by Tania Kindersley.
As you might have noticed, I have had guests all summer long. One of the very few things that makes me sad about my decision to flee London and end up six hundred miles north of Hyde Park Corner is that I miss my old friends. Luckily, the hardier of them will sometimes pack up their entire family, get on plane train or automobile ('is it Charnock Richard services that I should avoid on the M6?), and pitch up at my front door. This of course leads to a girlish ecstasy of excitement, but also, equally of course, a hard dose of hostess anxiety.
The hostess anxiety has several roots. Like those Jewish and Italian mammas who may only exist in our imaginations, I associate good cooking and the taking of pains (flowers in the bedroom, the best sheets) with love, and I want to shower my friends with the love. Also, the poor things have flogged all the way from the south, often with small people in tow, so the least they deserve is as much comfort as I can give them. There might be an echo of childhood memories of my mother, who spent at least a week getting ready for guests, religiously laying out the finest towels, heavy glass bottles of Malvern water by the bed, biscuits in a little tin in case anyone should awake, starving, in the night, and a sheaf of writing paper, should someone be suddenly struck by the urgent need to write a letter. Perhaps there is a batsqueak of defensiveness, a small desire to prove that despite leaving the naked city behind I can still live the good life, so far north. And then there is a massive dose of general overexcitement, because visitors are still a relative rarity, and a delightful excuse to make detailed menu plans, show off my latest culinary invention, get out the loveliest linen.
I am not nearly as anal as I used to be. There were times when the entire house would have to be reorganised for about a month in advance. Now I am older and more blurred around the edges: I understand that my friends accept that I live in a constant state of mild muddle. There is no point trying to hide the piles of paper in my office, or the books that live on the stairs. They are not coming to see Martha Stewart, after all. It seems that they will go on forgiving my foibles, even though I shall never turn into the Organised Person of my dreams.
In being a hostess, as in life, it is the little things that often make the most difference. I think it is reductive and stupid to make rules for these things, just another way to make women feel inadequate about their lives. Ignore firmly any sentence that starts: a good hostess must... Having people to stay does not have to look like something out of a glossy magazine. The best fun can be had with nothing more than some good conversation, a bottle of wine and some bread and cheese. But if I were to come over all Martha-ish, these would be my own indispensible elements for a charming weekend:
Flowers by the bed.
This one definitely comes from my old mum. It does not have to be a Constance Spry arrangement; I favour a small Moroccan tea glass filled with pretty things from the garden, usually, in my case, mint and sage as a base, and then whatever is flowering at the time - most recently, a white hydrangea, a deep purple geranium and some marjoram. This is the smallest of the small things, but it is a telling act of care, and also makes you feel tremendously domestically goddesslike as you do it If you do not have a garden, or it is the dead of winter, a little glass of tulips is very fetching, and quite cheap.
A well-stocked bathroom.
I live in a rented house, and my long-suffering guests have to put up with a tiny bathroom with woodchip on the walls and an avocado suite. They all say, sweetly, that it reminds them of the 1970s, when they were small, but still. To divert them from the aesthetic horror, I fill the bathroom with as many luxurious products as I can lay my hands on. They get Floris and Jo Malone and huge bars of scented Portuguese soap. Also: far too many towels. I think you can never have enough towels. Another nice thing is to provide basic items they might have forgotten to pack, so there are always spare toothbrushes, toothpaste, cotton wool, moisturiser, body cream etc etc. I do a little hotelly bowl filled with needles and thread, cotton buds, and what I believe are called 'sundries'. No one ever uses them, but it gives me inordinate pleasure.
The good linen.
Before the credit crunch caught us all in its snapping teeth, I had a rush of blood to the head and bought some actual linen sheets (quite good value from The White Company sale, if you have any money left). These are kept for best and proudly brought out when the visitors come. I am quite hard line when it comes to bedding. I think a spare room should have pristine white pressed sheets, at least four good pillows, and plenty of extra blankets (one house I once stayed in was so cold that I was reduced to getting up in the night and putting on all my clothes, including socks, so that I could get to sleep).
The good linen, seen here in action. That pretty wallcovering is a Chinese-style fabric, designed by my very own talented sister, if I can say that without sounding too swanky.
The good food.
It does not have to be fancy. I used to break out the fillet of beef the moment guests arrived; I do live in Aberdeen Angus country, after all. Now it is more likely to be salmon fishcakes and roast chicken with smashed potatoes with olive oil and basil. In some ways, the simpler the food is, the better, because there is more time for chatting. I think the only rule is that it should be made with love. I have given up doing three elaborate courses. Now, people get a little soup in a tea glass instead of a first course, or some homemade salsa with tortilla chips, then one good main course, followed by watercress salad and cheese in the continental manner, and some Green and Black chocolate to finish. If you kill yourself making a la di dah three course dinner with all the trimmings you will just end up feeling flushed and faintly martyrish, which is not the point at all. Where I do veer into Martha territory is breakfast, where I get quite carried away - berries with natural yoghurt, sausages and bacon and tomatoes, and soda bread hot from the oven with special Deeside jam. After that, I usually have to have a little lie down.
A free period.
Even though I mostly want to spend every waking moment with my lovely guests, compensating for the weeks we spend apart, I have learnt that this does not make for the most successful visit. It can be too much, and everyone, especially me, gets fretful and overstimulated. So my new rule is that after lunch everyone gets a free period. I usually go and lie down on my bed, like an old lady, either reading a book or having a little disco nap. The guests will either mount an expedition of their own - a trip to the bookshop at Ballater, or a beautiful drive along the south Deeside road, where they may see Highland cows and black sheep and even, if they are very lucky, an eagle - or just lounge about in the sun, should there be sun, or, in the winter, sit quietly by the fire with a newspaper. Then we are all doubly delighted to see each other again after tea.
So, my dear readers, there are my thoughts on the art of the hostess. It is not exactly Lady Otteline Morrell, but it seems to work for me. You will have your own theories and strategies. My sister, who can be stricter than I, boils it all down to one, iron-clad principle: guests, like fish, go off after three days.
The house, ready for guests, complete with slumbering dogs on the newly plumped-up sofa. They have NO sense of decorum.