July 19, 2013 6:38 pm

Picnic-grief and its remedy

Competitive picnicking is like a bad neighbourhood in the middle of the night: you don’t want to go there

I may be one of the few people on this planet to have had my feelings hurt by a picnic. Talk about idiotic. What next? Feeling rivalrous with a stick of rock? Attempting a stand-off with some candyfloss?

“But you must not feel bad about picnic-grief, for this is a famous, age-old problem; why it even occurs in a Jane Austen novel!” I hear you cry. To which I will say, “Hhrrummph.”

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Susie Boyt

For last week, without realising it, I entered into that vile blood sport known as competitive picnicking. Competitive picnicking is like a bad neighbourhood in the middle of the night: you don’t want to go there.

I pride myself on not being very competitive, in part because I’ve always liked that soothing feeling of things going gently downhill. While I have a lot of faults in the character department, I find it remarkably easy to wake up and not compare myself to Saul Bellow, and I scarcely ever notice that my neighbour’s grass is a richer shade of green than my own.

I don’t quite go as far as a woman I once heard on the radio saying that while playing tennis she often forgets whose side she is on but I will say that I have sometimes caused mirth in others by holding forth on the subject of how uncompetitive I am. In fact, when three or four exceptionally uncompetive people are gathered, I do like it acknowledged that I am the most uncompetitive of all.

I was heading to Cambridge to take part in a talk celebrating women and publishing, and a few emails had flown on the subject of a Train Picnic. It was clear that something substantial was called for, as the speakers would be out from 4pm to 10pm. I planned the whole thing in my head. Something stylish and a little unexpected, I thought, seeing in my mind’s eye the intercity version of one of those paintings that hangs in the Prado with a few dead game birds, some pale lemons and a skull – only a bit more appetising. More instructions followed, someone put herself in charge of food and asked for volunteers for “picnic crockery”.

“I will bring the crocs,” I messaged back instantly.

I have built up a good selection of picnic things over the years. I have jolly red picnicware, from children’s catalogues; checked picnic equipment from Italian markets; napkins embroidered with chicks from Portugal; marbled blue enamel plates from America; and some rather self-important picnic items picked up in French flea markets that require a butler in gloves and, maybe, the boot of a Rolls-Royce, items that these days are generally thin on the ground.

I felt jolly was the order of the day so I made a selection from my pantry and put it in a straw bag. It was all very pleasant and cheery, no style triumph, certainly; not Gatsby-ish in any way but, suddenly, rigging up an “extraordinary”-looking picnic seemed like the last word in big fat yawns. You don’t have to navigate life like Lady Bracknell, I thought sternly, although my handbag may think otherwise.

. . .

Just then a message came through from one of the other writers along the lines of: “I know, I’ll bring my wonderful picnic basket, bought years ago and never used.”

I was shocked! Is one allowed to gazump in this fashion? Did she not think my things were good enough? I telephoned my friend K to talk it through. Why did I feel so hurt, so filled with that old chestnut called being-brushed-aside-by-the-big girls? I carried on in this vein for a spell and then it was time for a little self-awareness. “Would you say I am just over-reacting in an ordinary way, or is what I am saying bordering on total nuts?”

“Well,” my friend said soothingly, “as you’re always saying to me, all any of us can do is live our lives in our own character.”

Of course, not having to lug a load of stuff across town would be a blessing, I consoled myself sensibly but, still, I was stung. I put the picnicware back in the cupboard and instead, firmly from the non-picnic department, amassed the best things I possess. Winning, suddenly, felt insanely crucial.

I wrapped some ancient champagne saucers in layers of pale blue tissue paper, and gathered a heavy damask cloth and some 36-inch square napkins, one of which belonged to my great-grandfather. I grabbed hold of the best bottle of wine in the house. Candelabra? I suddenly thought. Would it be a step too far?

My steps sagged, my heart, too, as I headed for the station lugging the accoutrements of a rather splendid dining room over my shoulder, humming, wry and rueful: “Can you bake a pie? No? Neither can I!”

susie.boyt@ft.com

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