Wednesday 24 February 2010

The Elf on the Naughty Step

No idea, 17.6 units. Can that be right? Well, yes it can, unfortunately: three pints of beer with a journalist friend over lunch in a London gastro-pub around the back of where The Guardian used to be (I have sadly reached an age where every important landmark is where something used to be, rather than where it is). Then 10.5 units absorbed in the course of my evening, which was centred on a discussion dinner with Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, a lady with whom I expected to agree, and was not disappointed. One of my Bloke clubs organizes this sort of thing, and does it well – very well, in fact, considering how damnably difficult it must be to serve a perfectly decent meal to around 150 people at the same time.

Tradition seems to demand that I and my guest or guests are always seated as far as possible from the guest of honour. I don’t know why this should be as, to the best of my knowledge, I have never knowingly caused any trouble at these events. Well, I suppose there was the time that the former head of the Food Standards Agency came to talk to a room full of health neurotics, and my guests and I all lit up huge cigars. But then it was just before the smoking ban, so it was our last chance and something we needed to do so that we could talk about it to our grandchildren. Added to which, it was surely at least partly the club’s fault for festooning the tables with matches and ashtrays.

Tonight, our companions in furthest and darkest reaches of The Naughty Corner were a very jolly lady member and her charming mother (or sister, as my gallant guest insisted on designating her) so that was all right. As for Ms Chakrabarti, quite apart from the fact that I have agreed with 90-odd per cent of her public pronouncements to date, I warmed to the fact that dinner was black tie, since this is left to the choice of the speaker and self-righteous left-wing types nearly always specify “lounge suits” (Gordon Brown’s boorish insistence on turning up to black tie City dinners in this garb was one of many excellent reasons for hating him right from the start of his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer).

My guest was less sure about whether The Chakrabarti was a Good Thing, though he remarked on her “elfin” appearance in what I took to be a mark of approbation. Then he disappeared to make a telephone call in the short interlude between dinner and speeches, and returned completely charmed. For who should have been standing next to him on The Naughty Step at the front of the club but Ms Chakrabarti herself, smoking a soothing fag. What greater commitment to liberty could anyone show these days? Even better, she was such a good sport that she had a chat with my guest’s wife to back up his unlikely story that he was having a black tie dinner in St James’s rather than hanging around in some sleazy lap dancing bar.

Ms Chakrabarti took as her starting point the fact that she had turned up for dinner rather on the early side, wandered in and found a succession of people making her feel thoroughly welcome – which is pretty much the basis on which she would like to organize society as a whole. She is not a great fan of the alternative “Don’t you know who I am?” approach. It is always good to be reminded that it is a “great good fortune to be born in the oldest unbroken democracy on earth” – and these days the point seems to come most comfortably from the children of immigrants. She also made a number of other excellent points, but I can sense an old clubman breathing down my neck and muttering “Chatham House rules, old boy” so I suppose I had better not repeat them all here.

I am always a bit frustrated by the way that these sorts of events seem to take an age over the browsing and sluicing and then, as soon as the interesting bit starts, some bloke with a metaphorical stopwatch starts chivvying everyone to hurry along as time is running out and there are last trains to be caught. It’s as though the first two and half hours of the Today programme consisted of John Humphrys and Jim Naughtie exchanging polite small talk over a cracking breakfast, and all the political interviews had to be crammed into the last 30 minutes, at least 10 of which would be taken up by repetitions of “I’m really going to have to hurry you, as we have very little time”. Which sounds pretty much the way things are now, come to think of it. Maybe they should give that breakfast idea a go and see how it works out.

It all chimes in with my fundamental belief that most people who go to black tie dinners don’t actually want to hear a speaker at all. Certainly on the rare occasions when I speak at such events myself, I am ever conscious of members of the audience yawning, staring at their watches and generally giving top class imitations of being bored out of their skulls, and I have noted similar reactions to more talented, experienced and amusing speakers, too.

So why go at all, then? Attendance is not compulsory.

Ms Chakrabarti was unsurprised that questions were not along the lines of “What’s your favourite colour?” and dealt in what I thought was a masterly fashion with the chestnut about the permissibility of torturing the bloke who had planted a nuclear bomb in St Paul’s Cathedral, to get him to reveal the secret code to stop the countdown (someone been watching too many BBC films, I fear). And you know you’re in a club with proper chaps when one of them claims that the country is overcrowded, and the chosen measure is that he can no longer find space to park his yacht in Lymington Harbour. Ah well, at least it must be easier to send the buggers back when they have come in their own boat. Well worth the trip to London and the price of admission for that alone, to be honest. And I got a newspaper column out of it, too.


blueskygirl said...

I've been ruminating for ages about your blog (excellent) and why (oh why) you have so few people remarking on it.

If I am honest the main things I enjoy about reading are your Archers equivalent stories of everyday folk - an example being the way you rolled out the story of running out of gas vs your propensity for full cupboards.

I really enjoyed reading this last post - it all adds to the sense of the person. But I am so mad with myself for not really being able to fulfill the role of a person continually responding with comments. I note one really nice person does this - but I feel if I respond I don't want to just write a possibly hollow congratulatory line.

What I have decided is (having deleted my own blog once deciding it was dire) I will respond to the Bloke In The North blog by blog in my own way. Whatever Bloke writes, I will match. Could be by answering. Could be by mirroring. Could be by choosing my own topic obliquely triggered by BITN

Oh well - it is worth a try

Keep blogging BITN

Keith Hann said...

Dear BSG

Many thanks for your most encouraging comments, which are very much appreciated - all the more so because their receipt is such a rare event. I too have long been puzzled by the lack of follow-up on this blog (though at least there is mercifully little follow-through, which is always a concern at my age). This seems particularly odd given that my Sitemeter gizmo tells me that I have a fair number of assiduous readers in places as diverse as California, Denmark, Scotland and Australia - yet I have absolutely no idea who the vast majority of them are, or what keeps drawing them back. All this is in marked contrast to most other blogs I look at, where every post is followed by a string of comments telling the author what a cracking, insightful and talented chap he (or she) is.

Still, my blog has brought me a beautiful wife and son, so I guess that puts me pretty close to the top of the global tree in terms of total returns from blogging. In the light of which, I suppose I should not complain.

Added to which, I can always consider how much better read and commented upon this blog is than my other one at, which is more or less completely disregarded despite being, I hope, rather better written than this one. At least it contains published newspaper columns rather than a Blokeish stream of consciousness. Perhaps I have been too honest about that. One of my fellow columnists presents his in blog form, without making clear that that is what they are (though the weekly posts of identical length might provide something of a clue, one would think) and he has oodles of followers posting adulatory comments after each entry.

Ah well.

Let me know when you re-start blogging and I shall take a look with a view to forming a Mutual Support Society.

All best wishes