Ian McMillan: Let's make family table the centrepiece again

AS I stood up from the table the other day after I'd had my dinner, two memories hit me simultaneously like little films projected in the home cinema of my head.

The first is of me and my brother, sometime in the early 1960s, finishing our meal and turning to our dad and saying, simultaneously: "Please may I leave the table?"

Dad nods and we scrape our chairs back and scarper. Looking back, it seems an impossibly old-fashioned thing to do, but in many ways my parents were impossibly old-fashioned people.

The second newsreel from the past goes back even further, so far back that it's probably in black and white; it features my dad again and this time it must be just a few years after he's left the Navy.

He retired from the sea in 1958 and I reckon it must have been about 1962, which would make me four years old; again, we've just finished our dinner and my dad stands to take the plates away but we all notice that he forgets that he's not in uniform any more and stands to attention.

He almost salutes, which would have sprayed gravy all over the place; there's a moment of tension as though we're in the South Atlantic just before a wave hits, and then we're all laughing and in a moment my dad is singing in the kitchen as he washes up in his pinny.

He'd been a sailor for two decades and it took him quite a while to stop standing to attention when he'd finished his rice pudding, although that was the only time I ever saw him just inches away from executing a salute.

The two things that are constant in those memories are our family, and our table. There's something great about a table, I reckon.

It can be the hub of the life of the house; it can be the place you argue and talk and chuckle and do your homework and read the paper.

It should also, of course, be the place you eat your meals, rather than on a tray in front of the telly which is something I confess I've done too much of lately.

The reason I'm thinking so much about tables at the moment is that we've just got a new one, along with four lovely chairs.

We've talked about it for ages, we've looked in showrooms where we've sat awkwardly opposite each other on chairs that were just that bit too low or just that bit too high, we've spent too long looking at pictures of tables in catalogues and at times I've dreamed that I was being chased through a furniture shop the size of the galaxy by a huge table, its wooden legs galloping like a racehorse.

Eventually, though, we ordered one and the other day there was a knock at the door and the table came. Not on its own, naturally; it was carried in by two blokes, a big 'un and a little 'un, like a pair of strikers in a football team or a comedy duo.

I offered them a cup of tea and, like chaps who carry furniture always do, they asked for two sugars (little 'un) and three sugars (big 'un). Sweetened, they put the legs on the table and took the chairs out of plastic and stood them around it.

The table is an expanding one, for when the family come round, and the lads stood and showed us how to pull it, wait for a click, pull again and let it settle and there it was, twice the size!

Then they thanked us for the tea and left us to it, nervous as parents with a new baby fresh from the hospital.

For a while we just looked at the table; later we progressed to going out of the room, closing the door, and then coming back in to surprise ourselves with the table's shining and aromatic newness.

Don't we all need a table in our lives, especially at Christmas? Isn't the decline of the dining table a terrible thing, a symptom of the fragmentation of civilisation from which it may never recover?

As the old saying goes: "A table influence is a stable influence."

I'm looking forward to Christmas dinner round my new table with the whole family and although we'll be wary of spillage (as I write this my wife is cutting a square of table felt to size) I'm sure we'll feel a great table-based joy as we pull the crackers and chew on the turkey breasts and the sprouts that are cooked to perfection.

In years to come there will be memories, both happy and sad, based around this table, and the table will, once again, become the focal point of the house, dragging me away from the dinner-on-a-tray.

Merry Christmas to all my readers! May you all gather round a table full of laughter and joy (and sprouts) at least once over the next few days!