We were going out this evening, and I was a bit reluctant. Not for the being out so much as for the going up and getting changed into something not as warm and venturing outside. It was the Classic Car Club Christmas dinner. It’s always held well into January.
I’m quite happy to go, although I find the conversation a bit sticky. I’m not uninterested in old cars, but I haven’t the passion for them that most members have. Usually, when someone starts talking about a particular interest, you can just listen and, by interjecting the odd reasonably unstupid comment or question, you can turn it into a one-sided conversation rather than a monologue. It’s more difficult when you should reasonably be expected to know a bit about the subject.
The talk wasn’t all about old cars, of course, and everyone was very jolly. I have eaten rather more than usual, I have to admit.
Years ago, I remember, I was at a party, a get-together for parents at Weeza and Al’s prep schools. It was held at a very nice local hotel owned by one of the boys’ parents. It was in the summer and we all sat around tables outside to eat. One man was very tongue-tied and shy and hardly said a word throughout the meal. Chatting afterwards, somehow the subject of honey bees came up. This chap’s face lit up. Seems he was an enthusiast, and at last he could join in the conversation. Not having good social skills, however, he didn’t know how to make it a conversation and, half an hour later, he and I were still talking about bees and everyone else had quietly melted away, including his wife. She was a sociable woman and was off chatting happily, having seen her husband in safe hands. I hadn’t actually got stuck, although I had had enough of the bee talk, to be honest. I was in one of my rare moods of kindness. The man knew a lot and talked well, it was just his awkwardness that didn’t let him join in general conversation. It was, admittedly boring – I came up with every single think I knew about bees and thought of various questions too, and couldn’t find a way out of the hive talk. He had a good evening though, and so did his wife, so I didn’t mind, just for once.
More recently, although still a while ago, we went to dinner with friends. Another couple was there, who had moved into the village not long ago, and one got the impression that they didn’t really go to dinner parties, or whatever you might choose them to disguise the fact that the best glasses actually had been got out. The hostess warmly welcomed us and was chatting away, and then excused herself to see to the dinner. A silence fell. I suddenly became aware that everyone was looking hopefully at me.
I was quite tired that evening, in fact. I was not unhappy about going out, but I’d quite have liked to sit back and be entertained and not do much talking. But, I realised, there was an expectation that I’d start the conversation off and be sparkling. So, I took the proffered glass of wine from our host, took a gulp from it and started chatting. I hadn’t been mistaken, faces lit up into a “Z’s off!” expression and it all went fine. And, of course, once you pretend to be in a mood, you become it, so I wasn’t tired any more. I was uncomfortably aware that everyone assumed it was the first glug of wine that did it to me, however, whereas it was, in fact, an effort of will.
I’m not so good at a general party, however, the sort where people stand around in little groups with glasses of wine. The business of circulating, not spending too long with anyone but extricating yourself without leaving them flat – or being the one left alone, looking for a conversation or a lone person to join – having lots of small talk that is entertaining without being too involving, eating the occasional canapé without spilling it down your front or getting tomato stuck between your front teeth is something I’ve never really mastered. How many people have, I wonder? You rarely get anyone who admits to enjoying it.
Mind you, I did well the other month. Back last summer, we went to London to view an auction – we’d viewed it in the daytime, and then there was an official view, with wine and canapés, in the evening, to which we’d been invited. It went quite well, because there was always the china to talk about, and to look at if you were alone for a few minutes. The Sage always abandons me instantly on these occasions. There’s no question of us looking after each other. However, after an hour or so, we found ourselves together, talking to a very nice chap, whom we offered to send a catalogue of our next sale, and he came to the sale. When he turned up to the sale, four or five months after this meeting, I greeted him by name. It was a rare triumph, and he was duly flattered.