Tipping up at A&E

To A -- 's and E -- 's for dinner. They are great friends of the Woman I Love, so I am mindful of the need to be on my best behaviour.

I am glad that the evening is à quatre, rather than a fully fledged dinner party. These, thankfully, appear to be on the way out. That is, unless the dinner-party community has decided to keep me uninformed about them. I must say, I loathe a dinner party, and have form when it comes to making my discomfort known, often a long time before the cheese appears. I am amazed how reliably one can stuff a dinner party with wankers. It is as if they appear by magic.

I remember one occasion when the wife and I gave one ourselves. One man in particular I remember: he was wearing a Fair Isle tank top and spent, as if under instructions from Central Casting, almost the entire evening discussing the route he had taken to get from Harmondsworth to Bayswater. I drank it all in, mesmerised. I thought such people only existed in the minds of . . . well, of the writers of comic columns. But
I swear, it was all he had to talk about, until he got on to the subject of the route he was going to take in order to get back from Bayswater to Harmondsworth. (It's really quite simple. That he was even considering the A4, as opposed to the M4, staggered me beyond comprehension. Only the intervention of the junior BBC producer from Reigate prevented us from coming to blows.)

This is not to presuppose any kind of superiority on my part. It is like playing poker. If you look around the table and can't see who the rabbit is - that is, the obviously bad player whose money you can win - then the rabbit is you. Likewise at the dinner table: if you can't see the obvious wanker, it's you.

But at least with A -- and E -- , I know what I'm in for: I have eaten their bread and salt before, and enjoy their company. They have a nice dog and, after about an hour, they relax the rule (by example) about only puffing your smoke through the French doors. The conversation is easy and the cultural reference points easily made, as we are all about the same age.

However, at one point, when we have got to roughly the third bottle, A -- startles me by reminding us how little he works, and for how much money. I am mindful of my own position here, as I too, in my cups, can enrage people by saying how light I have contrived to make my workload, albeit with the proviso that my wage packet is correspondingly modest. But the WIL, as I am acutely aware, works her socks off and still earns next to nothing.

A couple of approaches occur to me. I can start an argument, or I can divert the conversation on to something else. While wondering what to do (better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith, after all), I tilt back on my chair. At which point, E -- freaks out. Now, I only tilt my chair back when I am confident of its robustness. I have examined them and they look tough enough to accommodate my largest friends. I nudge 11 stone, so everything should be OK. But if E -- is having kittens about this, then simple good grace demands that I put myself back in the upright position.

“It's not that," she says. "I'm worried you're going to tip over backwards and fall through the window behind you."

French revolution

Now, I have been tipping back on my chair for almost 40 years now, and the only time I have ever fallen backwards was when I did it on purpose in 1974, during a particularly dull French lesson, as a diversion. In the matter of tipping back on a chair, I fancy that I have the poise and experience of an Olympic gymnast. That my technique in this regard is being impugned, I take as a small but significant outrage. And I say as much.

A lively but generally good-humoured discussion ensues. In the end, I become too self-conscious about tipping my chair back to do it again. The conversation meanders genially. After a while, it returns once more to the subject of work.

“I don't get into the office until one o'clock most days," says A -- .


Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Everything you know about Islam is wrong