Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Rooksmoor's Guide to Attending Weddings

As regular readers will know, this blog is very much about downloading things from my brain into a more reliable storage space than my memory. To some degree, I have realised it is part of maintaining my identity in the way that I keep a diary and photos of people I have known. As my memory worsens, if you took those things away from me, it would be like erasing me as I am. I could start again but I would be a different person. To some degree this betrays an arrogance, that the identity of me at the moment is worthwhile maintaining in any form, given that many people and identities are wiped out forever on a second-by-second basis. All I can claim in defence is that I am rather attached to my current self and would be rather lost without it.

So, anyway, this brought me to the realisation that one topic I had not covered that was at the centre of every summer for me 1991-2001 is going to weddings. In that period I attended 16 weddings and was invited to 4 more, if I remember correctly, that I could not make it to, one each in Scotland (I was living in London), Germany, Malta and South Africa among them, and given, as I outline below, my income was low, I could not afford the flights to any of these, let alone the accommodation. In terms of presents I set a limit of £30 (€40.20; US$58.50 - the £ is currently sliding against the € and US$ despite financial difficulties especially in the USA) per each one but as much on travelling there as it took (I had no car), which meant I could spend £250+ per summer, at a time when my rent was £300 per month and I earnt £792 (€1069; US1544) per month before tax. The amount I spent on presents did not rise but of course the travel costs did.

In most cultures weddings are big events. A friend of mine attended one in Korea where there was a hall holding about 400 people and the bride changed clothes into 7 different costumes and the groom into 4; the wedding lasted all day. They had traditional Korean and more typically Western rituals as part of the whole process. A French wedding friends of mine attended similarly went on for 12 hours by the time they left. There was a procession around a local lake and lots of bad singing, plus at least two meals. The British tend to do a lot less at weddings, though one I went to had 14 pages to the order of service, two priests and holy communion for Catholics and Anglicans, prayers in English and Latin, lots of hand shaking and the service lasted 90 minutes, wearying for the nine under-5s there, two of whom only spoke German. They do spend a lot of money but it does not really go on anything that obvious to the guests. In the UK like the USA weddings have become an industry (this seems less the case elsewhere in Europe, but if I am wrong let me know) and in my town there seem to be regular wedding fairs advertising the whole range of things from the venue (things took off when in the early 2000s, I think, places like stately homes began to be licenced to have the actual ceremonies at them rather than just the reception), to catering, flowers, dresses, catering, table settings, thank-you scrolls, petals to be spread, hot air balloon to leave in, band/DJ and so on. When I started this long run of wedding attendance (and I had been to a few before, but just family ones) in the UK it was on average £8000 that was spent on weddings, ten years later it was £14,000 (€18,900; US$27,300), now some of that was due to inflation, though that had been a few percent in that time, but a lot of it was the increasing range of items to include. The scale in some cases has grown, the largest one I attended had 143 guests and I was so far from where the speeches were being given that I could not hear what was being said, and the laughter rippled back along the three huge tables of guests as we realised we were supposed to be laughing.

So that is the shape of weddings in the UK today, big unwieldy things which are a minefield in terms of social behaviour. One wedding in Essex and one in Hampshire, I was only invited to the reception as at the time I had the shortest distance to come of all the guests many of whom were coming from abroad. However, it turned out I was the only guest not invited to the ceremony (being single I am often an odd number to fit in) and so on both occasions it looked like I had either deliberately avoided the ceremony or was just negligent and turned up late. If you are going to have some guests only coming for one part, make it a decent number. Us poor guests will have enough to face without such further embarrassment.

Culture can be a big challenge and I have seen this handled well and have seen it handled badly. At a wedding in Coventry there was an Indian and a German getting married and the bulk of their friends were British. In most cases the three groups of guests had no common language. However, the groups were of equal size and large enough that they could function without difficulty or with people sitting on their own with no-one to talk to. The worst handling of cultural issues was at a Scottish wedding in Surrey. The bride's family were Scottish and the groom's English. The whole theme was very Scottish with Scottish music and dancing and all the bride's guests in traditional Scottish garb. The English were not permitted to dress this way as it was seen as fake and so we came in usual wedding clothes, smart suits and dresses. This, however, prevented us from taking part in the Scottish activities, we were not permitted to dance and so on. This even included the groom's family, who embarrassingly were forced to sit on the side. The whole event looked like simply the bride's family absorbing the groom (who was in Scottish clothing) rather than two families coming together. It really soured the event. I went with some other (English) men and gatecrashed another wedding in the same hotel and ironically we actually got a warmer welcome there than we had at the wedding we had been invited to. The organisers (and the bride and groom are usually too busy, so the family members) should really work hard to ensure that no guests feel isolated. People are being thrown together from different backgrounds, so you should at least try to have a reasonable sized group of each.

This element links to another thing, which is, I wish the bride and groom would actually discuss their wedding arrangements. I know that often it is organised by the bride and her mother and female relatives and simply imposed on the groom and the men, but it can be terribly embarrassing when one side does not know what the other side is going to do. I think in the Scottish case this was deliberate spurning, but at a Wiltshire wedding, the bride launched into a speech outlining the wonderful characteristics of the groom in her speech (it is unusual in the UK to have the bride speak, but she had been in amateur dramatics) and then he came up and he had just formal things to say (the groom usually thanks all the people who organised things) and tried to add impromptu compliments to his wife and it came off very badly because he is not good at improvisation and you could feel the whole hall squirming in embarrassment. Not a good situation to put your husband in. They should have talked it over in advance, especially given how well organised the rest of the event was.

Food. Now, weddings can be tiring and hot, sometimes boring. However, people do not get that hungry. They expect food as part of the process (they usually expect free drinks and one of the biggest complaints is when they have to pay at the bar), but people hosting the wedding go far too far. People do not want to sit down to the equivalent of a Christmas dinner in June. However, the caterers advise them (not surprisingly, they are trying to make a profit) to have so many alternatives and so many courses that you get overloaded and it seems a waste. When I was earning only £792 per month, my intention was always to eat at least as much in value as I had spent on the present (which meant occasionally sneaking out chunks of Stilton cheese wrapped in tissues). Generally it is not difficult to do. At a Kent wedding I attended, we had snacks and then sat down to the lunch at 3pm. This lasted over 90 minutes, so we rose from a three-course meal, plus cake, at around 5.30pm. At 7pm the buffet dinner was wheeled in, with mounds of drumsticks as deep as my forearm. No-one could face it. It is not the done thing to run off with food even from a buffet, women are in a better position as they can put it in their handbags but for men you just have to keep going back and eating as much as you can. Wedding organisers (and in the UK, it is still not typical to employ someone to do this, it is usually family members) should realise people cannot eat loads more than usual and in fact often less than they normally would. Have a nice show, but do not overdo it. Have a cake people actually like to eat (a white iced sponge cake was the best wedding cake I ever ate) rather than the heavy fruit, marzipan and icing fortress that is traditional and that few people want more than a nibble of. The most extreme case was a wedding cake topped with a icing replica of the church which the couple kept in their house for years afterwards.

Picking up people at weddings. In my period of greatest wedding attendance I was on the look out for a girlfriend and thought that weddings would be a good place. However, they were just a source of humiliation on that front. Do not believe the movies about getting to kiss the bride's sisters or friends or whoever, it just does not happen, and it is only years later that I realise I was working under an entirely false assumption. Those women who are looking for a partner do not come to weddings alone. Even if they just get a blind date or a friend they come with a man. This does not mean they are not single before or after the wedding, but for the wedding they are with someone. Thus, the women who are on their own at weddings either want to be single (often very aggressively as their backs are put up by the uber-romance of their friend's/relative's wedding) or lack the social skills to find a partner. The number of women I met at weddings that it was clear that even in their 20s and 30s they had no intention of leaving the parental home, was quite surprising. Weddings tend to bring such women out. So, do not bother trying to find dates at a wedding (now funerals are somewhat different, but you should not go beyond 'can I call you?' stage otherwise it seems offensive, but it can be a good starting point). Instead if you are a man, get drunk (or stoned or both; at the Kent wedding I had to load four stoned people into a taxi, having extricated them from various bushes around the hotel so they could catch the last train. Most left at least one item of clothing or their wallet/purse behind), dance madly and eat as much as you can stomach.

Bores at weddings. I have probably now become one of these so it is good I no longer get invited. Partly this goes back to the point about getting groups of guests to interact. Generally people are grouped by age or profession. I tended to get put on tables with other business people and then when I did that volunteering at a primary school sometimes got moved to the table for teachers. In both cases I was patronised by people far more successful than me. I generally in response came out with outrageous suggestions (my favourite one is to suggest that the state starts giving hard drugs police have seized to elderly people for free to make them happy and reduce the burden on the health service; back in the 1990s when there was a glut of butter in Europe the government began dishing it out to old people). A common attitude that people told me at length was that because I was not some wealthy businessman with a huge car that I was somehow a burden on the state. Another common one was that because I was single I had no idea how to wash and clean things (my flat was always immaculate as I do not want to live in squalor and had no-one else bar me messing it up) and must live in a pile of disused pizza boxes. Someone in Kent actually said to me 'oh, you can't know anything about cleaning'.

The worst one of all for patronising attitudes, though came at a wedding in Worcestershire. I had had to travel from London by train at great expense, changing twice and using three different railway companies to get there. I had to leave the wedding before the speeches had even started so that I could catch a bus cross-country to Birmingham (about 35 miles; 56km away) because no train would get me back there to get my connection to get home (I could not afford the hotel charges to stay). A man at my table who had driven from Surrey in his huge car was interested that I had come by train and lectured me throughout the afternoon about how much better it must be now that British Rail had been privatised and broken into separate companies. I told him how complex the journey had been and how much cheaper and easier it would have been with a single company (the connections did not match up, a train would arrive 20 minutes before I arrived to catch it and then there would be no other for 2 hours) and it did not penetrate his brain at all, he so believed in the wonders of Thatcherist privatisation that he literally did not hear anything contrary to that even when I had to leave mid-way through dessert to ever stand a chance of getting home.

I suppose one key issue here is that there is an assumption that you advance in life roughly at the same speed as your friends. By the mid-1990s it was clear that I was well out of step and this is why other guests had so much trouble with me. My income was a third or a quarter of what theirs was. I had no wife not even a partner and I had no young children. I did not work in a profession and I never went on holiday even. They envisaged me as a reckless young (rapidly ageing man) who in some undetermined way was using up their taxes and lived in squalor and so they felt they had to tell me the error of my ways. Of course, I did not like how I was living and constantly tried to change my standing (once I almost got one woman to come to a wedding with me, but at the last moment she changed her mind) and get a better job (applying for on average 125 per year). I might have mixed with an odd crowd as by the 21st century, 95% of my friends were married and I have now only had the second divorce out of that lot in 2007. I mixed increasingly with my brother's friends who for some reason were less attracted to marriage, settling down and getting on, though none of them was starving or doing badly.

Having been 'promoted' to the teachers' table, where the discussion was just alien to me, and my knowledge on general education issues was scoffed at as irrelevant, I tended simply to get ignored. The best guest I was ever put next to, was at a wedding in Berkshire. For some reason I was on a table of gays (who stereotypically were great dancers and loved the disco, demanding 80s stuff the DJ had not played in years) and one lone father. The father was constantly busy talking to people especially the bride's sister who he had been brought by, but who had already moved on to someone else. His daughter who was three sat next to me and proceeded to count everyone's buttons. For her it was a novel experience as she never wore dresses and she enjoyed spinning around in the one she had on. We had fun rhyming things like 'ham' and 'lamb' and she would disappear off to appear between the bride and groom and then back under the tables. I almost choked when she picked up a roll in one hand and a circular pat of butter in the other and proceeded to bite from each in turn, feeling herself looking very grown up. She went back for more butter. It was the first time I had not felt patronised at a wedding.

One final thing before I go, this depends on your own status, but generally, if you are single, the wedding will be the last time you ever see the couple. This has happened to me on so many occasions. The last view I remember of my school friend at his wedding was him standing to speak in a small village in Worcestershire as I rushed out the door (profiteroles in hand) to catch the bus, 11 years ago.

To summarise, weddings seem no less common than in the past, no matter what social class you inhabit. I generally enjoy them because they are usually happy events. However, these days I think I would be more careful, the potential for expense and humiliation are very high as a guest. It is almost like going back to a school reunion, unless you match or have exceeded the achievements of not only the hosts but the other guests, then it is going to be embarrassing. Go to get drunk, go for free food but do not go to find a date. Try to ensure there is at least a small group roughly like yourself (you will band together in defence against the rest) and that you are on the same table as them. So much planning goes into weddings, but little thought seems to be given to the people dragged along to attend it. I guess they are not the focus of the event, but at least people could give some thought to not putting them in awkward situations and the fact that they cannot consume vast quantities of food. Fortunately most people I know (including the gays) are now married, so this will not be a challenge I have to face. However, I hope that some of my pretty extensive experience in this field may help you out.

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