June 28, 2014 12:00 am

Royal dining and how to react to expensive (but unwanted) gifts

At the other extreme, the least elaborate lunch I’ve ever had was at Clarence House

How should a gentleman respond to finding out that he has been the victim of a cruel practical joke?

A real gent would take a practical joke in his stride, although occasionally it might not be ungentlemanly to resort to revenge. That’s what Steed, the Avenger carrying his signature bowler and brolly in a Savile Row suit, always did. We must not, however, be too hasty in exacting revenge, which is best served cold. A very good friend of mine, whose wife introduced me to my wife, worked for The Prince of Wales, and on a few occasions, he would telephone me imitating the voice of the heir to the throne – with devastating accuracy. Every time he did it, I was too gullible and unctuous to disbelieve that The Prince would telephone me. I would politely carry on the conversation, gesticulating to anyone else in the room to keep quiet. Then suddenly there would be booming laughter at the other end of the line with my friend obviously curled up in a foetal position for succeeding with his impression. I fell for the joke a couple of times and was determined not to be caught out again. The day after the death of my father, I received a phone call which I was convinced was another of my friend’s vocal pranks. So I let him carry on sending me his condolences, then I bellowed down the line: “Sure sure, Guy, and you know where you can shove your condolences?” – before slamming down the phone. It turned out that on this singular occasion, it was actually The Prince who had called.

What do you do if you are given an expensive present, but you don’t actually like it? Do you reveal your disappointment or just keep quiet?

On the whole, one must be gracious about any present, expensive or not. It would have to be exceptional circumstances before I’d declare that what I’d been given was unacceptable. My wife and I were given a couple of diamond watches of unspeakable vulgarity, but it would have been totally out of order if we had told our (mega-rich but non-British) royal friend that the watches were unwearable. Besides, I knew all along that we could pawn them or exchange them for other things, which we swiftly did.

There are other awkward circumstances. On the last day of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, I was asked to lunch on board the royal yacht Britannia, surely the most stylish vessel on earth. After luncheon, The Prince asked to see me in his study, where he produced a most elegant Cartier clock, wrapped in that typically sumptuous leather case with gold embossed along the edges. It was a present for me – great, except that for us Chinese, one present we must not give or receive is a clock. This is because the word “clock” in Chinese sounds exactly the same as “death”. But I was far too oleaginous to refuse this marvellous gift from The Prince, although I have never ever, for reason of feng shui, taken the clock out of its case to use – lest I suddenly be confronted with death! Do I believe it? I have no idea, but better safe than sorry.

What is the most elaborate banquet you have ever had?

We Chinese are not bad with sumptuous banquets. Whenever important heads of state visit Beijing, the Chinese leadership would put on course after course not only of Chinese cuisine, but punctuating it with western dishes as unlikely as beef stroganoff and spaghetti Bolognese.

Perhaps even more sumptuous would be a typical Mongolian banquet. But I hate it because everything is made from yak: yak butter, yak milk, yak tea, yak soup, yak meat, yak feet, yak this and yack that. It’s all pretty yuck.

At the other extreme, the least elaborate lunch I have ever had was at Clarence House when I brought a delegation of my Chinese business friends to see The Prince. They were particularly impressed that they were asked at one o’clock which was obviously lunch time. Instead, however, as we sat round the table talking – no more food than a dozen or so Highgrove biscuits and a few pots of tea appeared. As we emerged from Clarence House, there was a rumbling chorus of hunger from my compatriots, incredulous that The Prince didn’t offer steak and kidney pie which was what they had been half expecting. They simply couldn’t believe that The Prince never ate lunch. Everyone then hurried up St James’s towards The Wolseley for a round of Wiener schnitzels.

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Letter in response to this column:

Thirsty guest sipped water and gazed at the vintage wines / From Mr Paul Surtees

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