Friday, June 24, 2011

The Soup Remained In The Bowl - The Lies of a Dining In

A formal dining in is a military tradition which dates back further than most can remember.  There are those who speculate it began in Roman times (ai, those Romans and their orgies!) but there's every reason to believe they could be older still.  Even the Scandinavians liked to get together for a food, drink, poetry and a bit of fighting.  And why not?  What better way to solidify comradeship and loyalty than to share food and drink?

I say 'a military tradition' which is a little bit misleading.  The Dining In is actually a collection of traditions which I will try to explain as best I can in this post.  I conducted a quick internet search to see if I could find a good reference for dinings in but most of the information out there is referenced to American ceremonies.  While they have all evolved from the same origin, theirs are a little different to ours. (For example, America also has dinings out.)  In fact, even in New Zealand there are differences - the Royal New Zealand Navy and the Royal New Zealand Air Force have different traditions, and even within the Air Force there are differences between the Officers' Mess and the W/O's and SNCO's Mess.
(W/O's and SNCO's [pronounced woe's and snow's] stands for Warrant Officers and Senior Non-Commissioned Officers)

Dinings in are held for a number of reasons.  They can be to celebrate historical milestones - Armistice Day, Black Thursday, etc - or to formally celebrate the career of a member who is leaving the service.  They can also be held just for the hell of it.  Held because the squadron wants to, because it's good for morale, because we're a damn fine Air Force and why shouldn't we celebrate?

But enough talk - lets get to the action!

Thursday night was the night when Avionics Squadron (Auckland) was holding its Formal Mixed Dining In. 'Mixed' means all ranks are able to attend, and so they did.  I am not a member of Avionics Squadron, but was invited as a guest of Ginge, who is.  The dining in follows a fairly strict order of business and begins with pre-meal sherries at the bar.  Dress is ceremonial - what we call "Service Dress" for the junior ranks, and "Mess Kit" for the seniors and officers.

Service Dress (or SDs)

Mess Kit

The sherries are used to 'stimulate the palate' for better enjoyment of the meal to come and traditionally no other beverage is permitted to be imbibed at this juncture.  Times do change though, and some will also purchase beer as well.  At this point the seating plans are displayed or circulated so that when the time comes there will be a minimum of fuss before the first course.

After sherries we move into the dining area and are seated.  The main lights are off and the tables are lit with candles only.  Each place has a small placard with the person's name on it and we all stand behind our seats waiting for everyone to file in.  When the VIPs have filed in and are at their place at the high-table, we sit.  Men always hold the seat out for the women. (I would use the terms gentlemen and ladies, but as I said... times change).  I had to clear my throat deliberately to remind Ginge.  At this point it is prudent to take one's name card and put it in a pocket somewhere.

Let me talk about the layout of the tables and personages.
For this, and most, dining in there were three 'tables.'  The high table across the top - similar to a wedding - where the most important people sit.  These are the squadron commander, the squadron warrant officer, the guest speaker and their guests (if invited).  Sometimes a junior member of the squadron will also be sat at this table, but not tonight.  From each end of the high table extends the other two tables so as to form a rectangular 'U' shape.  These tables must be positioned 'at least two sword lengths' from each other.  It's an interesting choice of measurement and I will explain why later on.  (Yes, there's a reason - did I mention 'heavily laced with tradition' earlier on? Well I should have.)
Behind the commander/high table are the Flag of New Zealand and the Royal New Zealand Air Force Ensign framing a picture of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II the Queen of England.
As the commander looks down the room with a table on either side, the table on his right has people seated only down the sides, with no one on the end.  But the table on his left has a place-setting on the far end.  In this seat resides Mr (or Madame) Vice.  Often Mr Vice is the youngest person at the dining in but once again - not in this case.  If there were more people, another table may be run down the length from the centre of the high-table, always keeping two sword lengths between.  Again, only Mr Vice may be seated at the end of the table.
Back to the action now, and the squadron commander asks Mr Vice for the Grace. Steve had written a special Grace for the evening, and I would love to write it out here for you now, but I haven't gotten a copy of it yet so watch this space.  Needless to say it had us chuckling.  Next up - the food.
The dining in is usually a five course meal - soup; entree; main; dessert; coffee, cheese & crackers.  Places are set with a white wine glass, a red wine glass, a water tumbler and a sherry/port glass.  Servers come and replenish the wine and water all evening so a person is able to drink as much as they want.

Food is served first to the high table, then down the line, and no one may begin until the high table has begun.  It can be a challenge to sit and look at your delicious meal and not so much as breathe on it until the squadron commander has lifted his first fork-full to his mouth.
My memory is a little hazy as to the particular details, but I believe the first toilet break comes after the entree.  Did I mention no one is permitted to leave the room, or even rise from her seat, unless it's a toilet break?  Well we can't.  And they're still topping up those wine glasses!
The toilet break is a risky business.  Should one 'break the seal' and risk needing to go again later on, or hold on and risk really needing to go later on?  And what about all the accoutrement's at the place setting?  If I should leave now for the toilet, I might come back to find my knife, fork, spoon or port glass isn't there anymore.  What do I do then?  I can't leave the table and go looking for them, or shout about it, or.... do anything.  As I said - it's a risky business.  For the first break I decided I was fine, and stayed at the table.

By this stage, the fines are beginning to come out.  Remember how I said it was prudent to hide my name card away?  As soon as people left the table for the toilet we started collecting their name-tags.  We use them to write down anything they've done or said during the course of the evening to warrant a (humourous) fine.  These are passed along the table, across the high table, and along the next all the way to Mr Vice for safekeeping.  It's etiquette not to read the fine on the way past.  It is possibly the only piece of etiquette not strictly adhered to. Some folks are more inventive than using name cards and rip corners of their paper place mats.  Jimmy looked around him with a devious eye and asked if anyone had a pen?  Andy replied in the affirmative and handed his biro over.  Jimmy thanked him with glee, put the pen in his pocket and said "You won't be able to fine me for anything now."  The tricks we learn...

Returning late from the toilet break is a fineable offence - and embarrassing to boot, so we were all back and ready to go for the next round.  Mains, Drinks, Fines, Dessert, Fines, Chatter, Laughter, Drink, Fun, Drink, and finally another toilet break, and a quick word in Mr Vice's ear.
Shit, I forgot to take my port glass with me.  Thank goodness it was there when I got back - Ginge had rescued it from theft.  Mike was not so lucky.

Again I'm a little hazy on the exact details, but I think at this point he cheeseboards came out, the coffee was served along with the choice of Drambuie or Baileys shots - or both.  Mike recovered a port glass - his or not, I'm not sure.  He poured his Drambuie into his coffee.
The speeches came - we laughed - the speeches went, and then the tables were cleared.
Cleared of everything but the candles and the port glasses, for now we had come to the ceremony of the passing of the port.

The passing of the port is conducted in absolute silence.
There are two schools of thought on this one.  The one I remember being taught, and the one I learnt that Thursday.  The latter preaches that the silence while passing the port is a relatively new development and one specific to the RNZAF or the Air Force, or the non-commissioned ranks, or something, and relates to a dining in which was scheduled during one of the two World Wars.  The dining in was held, but not everyone could make it.  Comrades had fallen only days before - they failed to make it back from a sortie - and the port was passed in silence in their honour.  If this is the original reason or not, it's a worthy cause, and it was at the forefront of my mind as the ceremony played out.
But lets back track a little.  What is the passing of the port, and what is it for?  It is the precursor to the loyal toast, and carafe's of port are started at one end of each table and passed from person to person to fill their port glasses which have thus-far remained empty.  See why it's important not to lose yours?  The port is poured, then the pourer passes the carafe from his left hand into the left hand of the next fellow.  Men usually pour for their female guests.  Ginge asked what I would prefer and I asked, as a serving member of Her Majesties NZ Armed Forces, to pour my own.  In the Air Force, the carafe is not permitted to touch the table.  I have been told that Air Force officers don't hold this tradition, or the tradition of silence, and it can take a long time for the port to make its way round.  The Navy hold the tradition of silence, but they slam the carafe to the table and slide it forcefully over to the next person.  Our guest speaker was from the Navy and that's exactly what he did.  We each have our own reasons for these methods.

The Navy is an old, old service and was once the pride of the British Empire.  Sailors would spend most of their adult life on board the ship in cramped conditions with barely any head-room.  They would still hold dinings in and serve the loyal toast, but the motion of the ship would make the passing of the port a difficult action - especially if they weren't permitted to let it touch the table.  But they are.  They slam the bottle down and slide it to the next man.  If the ship is rocking from the ocean (and when won't it?) this is the safest way to pass the port.
Our (Air Force) tradition stems from the British Army, and a lot of little things have arisen out of the English takeover of Scotland.  It was not a peaceful merger - or indeed a merger at all - for a long time.  The Scots resented the English even as they had to sit or stand next to them for ceremonies such as these.  Why mustn't the port touch the table?  Why must it be conducted in silence (the version I was taught)?  And why left-hand to left-hand?  The answer to all three - to prevent fights.
Silence so arguments cannot break out.  Off the table to ensure hands are always occupied.  And left-hands because a Scotsman's left hand is his dirk hand.

They fought with swords in their right and dirk's in their left.  As I understand it, the English got a bit sick of their Scottish officers passing the port with their right hand and sticking the officer next to him in the side with a big sharp knife.  So yeah, left-hand only, even for us hundreds of years later.
That brings us back to the table distances - at least two sword lengths apart.  Make sense now?

But what about the clearing of the tables?  There's more to it than a modern-day military need for ship-shape and squared-away.  The most important thing to be removed from the table is water.  Once again this comes back to the Scots.  After the first and failed Jacobean uprising Bonnie Prince Charlie took off and was exiled in France.  Although we wasn't technically their king, many were still loyal to him and he could be thought of as their king across the water.  Hold that thought while I progress to the loyal toast.

The loyal toast is very simple.  We're toasting the Queen because we are loyal to her.  We are in her armed forces, we serve her as we serve our country.  It's kind of the whole point.  So, after the passing of the port we stand, turn to the picture of Her Majesty, raise our glasses, and the squadron commander says "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Queen."  We reply, "The Queen." and drink our toast.

Of course back in the day, the loyal toast was raised to the King.  The King of England.  I don't need to tell you what the Scots thought of this.  They devised a bit of a loophole.  The would raised their glasses and make the reply - "The King."  Then they would pass their glass over any water which was on the table - bowl, glass or carafe, and then drink.  It was their way of toasting the king across the water.  Loyal? Yes, but not a loyalty directed at the English king.  And now, centuries later, we still remove water from the table before the loyal toast.

After the toast the serving staff are thanked, a birthday message was delivered (and happy birthday sung) then the VIPs left the dining hall and returned to the bar.  Once they had left we sat back down and Mr Vice reigned supreme.  It was fine-time!
It would be rude of me to share all the fines - and not so funny if you don't know the people and you weren't there.  But there was one very odd fine indeed.  Read out, it went like this:
"Ginge is fined for spilling his soup all over his partners skirt.." (pause for laughter) "... then trying to clean her lap with his napkin."
There was no laughter from our side of the table, only confused looks.  What?  Ginge never spilt his soup, I'm his guest not his partner and he never tried anything on with me.  Steve (Mr Vice) was beside himself with mirth so we didn't argue.  Jimmy said he had sent a fine along the table stating Ginge had splattered his soup so we guessed people had been adding and embellishing the fine as it progressed.  Ginge was fined $10.
The money from the fines goes into a couple of jars and is put on the bar for the rest of the evening.  We returned to said bar to find the VIPs well settled in and joined them for the rest of the evening.

Morale booster - Check!
Celebration - Check!
Great night out - Check!

And where did all the money come from, some of you might ask, to pay for such an extravagant night out.  I can guarantee it was not from public funds.  Those boys and girls from Avionics Sqn pay fortnightly into the social club - out of their own pockets.  The Social Club saved up and paid for it, plus tickets cost members an additional fee.

Ginge paid for me.

Isn't he nice?


Baltagalvis said...

Great post! Very good written. It was real pleasure to read. Since my teen I was obsessed with every thing that related to military(traditions, weapons, history tactics, etc.). :)

Sez said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it :D

Doug said...

Fascinating insight! Gawd save the Queen! :)

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed your post xxxMxxx

Sez said...

Thanks Doug, and thank you very much Mum :D