Formal Dining-in Nights - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Formal Dining-in Nights

Towards the end of the course we had a formal Dining-In Night. These occasions follow a pattern that has remained largely unchanged from the earliest days of the RAF. For this, because we hadn't yet received our ceremonial Mess Kit, we had to wear parade uniform with a white shirt and black bow tie. The bow tie had to be of the single-ended variety - the most difficult type to tie. Double-ended bow ties were not permitted - they were deemed infra dig for some obscure reason. It was a terrible crime to be caught sporting a ready-made clip-on bow tie, however many ends it might have had.

A brand-new single-ended bow tie came in a small packet complete with a slip of paper illustrating how to tie it. The diagrams were not very clear so most of us resorted to tying each other's. That involved two men standing close together in front of a full length mirror, the one doing the tying standing behind and with his arms around the neck of the one being dressed, a pose which resulted in much merriment and coarse humour. It was quite possible to find that when the bow was complete, the whole thing hung much too slackly around the neck so that it had to be re-done.

For training purposes one of our course had been appointed President of the Mess for the evening. The rest of us arrived at the entrance to the anteroom en masse at 7.30pm or fractionally before, came to attention individually in front of the President and bade him good evening. There was an almost overwhelming urge to click one's heels and bow one's head whilst doing this, but to do so was highly frowned upon. During the next 25 minutes or so, waiters carrying solid silver trays passed amongst us offering us sherry or water. No other pre-dinner drinks were allowed, and no smoking was permitted. All the Directing Staff and one or two other officers from around the station joined us on this occasion. It had been drilled into us that talk on dining-in nights must not include references to women, the job, politics, or religion, so conversations tended to be rather stilted.

We all kept a close watch on the time and from about 7.53pm there was a general flow, a few at a time, to the toilets. We knew that anyone needing to leave the dining room during the meal would have to march up to the President at the top table and formally request permission. We had been warned that the meal and the post-meal speeches could last up to three hours and that permission to go to the toilet might not be granted and, even if it were, it would probably cost the cadet a round of drinks after dinner.

We also needed to consult the seating plan, which was on display near the anteroom entrance. It was important to note, and remember, the way the plan was orientated; it would be very embarrassing to march into the Dining Room and then be unable to find one's seat. Throughout my subsequent career there always seemed to be at least one officer in that predicament at every dining-in night I attended.

At exactly 8pm, the Mess Manager arrived from the kitchen, went up to the trumpeter who had appeared at the door of the anteroom, and prompted him to sound off. In the silence that followed that, the Manager announced: "Lady and Gentlemen, dinner is served." (The Student Officer Matron was the only female present on this occasion.) At this point we put down our glasses and made our way into the dining room. Strictly speaking we were supposed to leave in reverse order of rank, the most junior first, and the top table officers last of all. However, since we all had equal status, apart from the staff officers, that rule was not enforced at Jurby. The student President, chaperoned by the Course Commander, and selected officer cadets were seated at the Top Table; the Station officers were allocated seats amongst the cadets on the wings which were placed at right angles to the top table. On the very end of one of the wings was the student officer detailed as the Vice President for the evening. Mr Vice had special duties later on.

As we made our way to our allocated seats and stood at attention behind them, without grasping the chair back, the band played Roast Beef of Old England, repeating its 18 bars as often as necessary until the President had reached his seat at the centre of the top table. ("When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman's food, it ennobled our brains and enriched our blood, our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good", etc Henry Fielding)

When the President was satisfied that everyone was in position, he banged his gavel and called for Grace to be said. One of the students, rather than the Station Padre, had been given that onerous task in advance. Humorous graces, or Latin graces, were permitted as long as they were neither too outrageous nor overlong. Then we all sat down, and the meal began - after one final protocol: no-one could start eating until the President had started. (Our student President had to be reminded of that after apparently forgetting that everyone was waiting for him to start.)

The meal took a long time because there were four or five courses to get through. When the final course had been eaten, the tables were cleared of everything apart from one wine glass placed centrally in front of each diner. Stewards placed two carafes, one containing Port and the other Madeira, in front of the President and two more in front of the Vice President. Those officers removed the stoppers and passed the carafes to their left, without taking any of the wine into their own glass. Any officer or cadet who did not wish to take alcohol simply handed the carafes straight on to his neighbour on the left without filling his own glass and the attendant waiter would automatically fill his glass with water. In that way the carafes eventually found their way, without ever touching the table top during the journey, back to the President and Vice President. They each filled their own glass, or had it filled with water, and then finally placed the carafes back on the table and replaced the stoppers. All the staff then retired to the kitchen and the Mess Manager indicated to the President that everything was ready and then he also left the dining room.

The President then stood up, banged his gavel and announced in a loud voice, "Mr Vice, The Queen." Mr Vice stood up, carefully pushing his chair backwards a short distance, and announced, "Lady and gentlemen, The Queen." (There was one lady student on our course.) Everyone else then rose and stood in silence while the band played the National Anthem. Throughout my subsequent commissioned career I often heard the story, probably apocryphal, that a nervous Mr Vice had once proclaimed "Quentlemen the Jean".

For some obscure reason, officers looking at each other across dining tables at formal functions always find it difficult to refrain from grinning stupidly while the National Anthem is being played. To avoid this, we had been advised to stare above the head of the officer opposite and concentrate hard. When the final notes had faded, everyone picked up their glass, proclaimed, "The Queen" and sipped wine or water. It was, we were informed, absolutely forbidden to add "God Bless Her!" at RAF formal dinners. The Loyal Toast marked the end of the formal part of the proceedings.

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