Class conscious

One of the biggest problems I've always had with middle-class life is getting out of conversations. As the Christmas drinks party approaches, I am very mindful that I will soon be parading my full range of clumsy endgames, such as "Excuse me a second, I've just got to go to the loo" and "I'm just off to get another glass of wine, would you like one?".

The latter is the tactic I generally employ. Usually the person I'm talking to declines. If they agreed, after all, they would be condemning themselves to another 20 minutes in my company. The nightmare scenario is that they say "yes", and do not drift off before I return with the drink.

I also find terminating dinner parties quite a serious difficulty. With luck, one of the guests will look at his or her partner during a lull in the conversation and say - with a stern intensity that brooks no refusal - "Well, I'm afraid our nanny will be wondering where we are."

At other times, however, things just drag on, through the sheer force of politeness, until everyone is exhausted. This was the point that I felt had been reached with two guests - I'll call them Tom and Mary - at a recent dinner party given by myself and the wife. It had been a very enjoyable evening but, at around midnight, feeling that everyone was talked out, I did something quite unprecedented: I actually suggested they might like to leave.

There was a terrible shocked silence, then I frantically back-pedalled with protestations that I meant only that they might like to leave some time in the next hour or so. It soon became clear, however, that my remarks had somehow galvanised the event. Tom and Mary were not going to leave - they were quite indignant on that point. "I was just getting into my second wind," said Mary. "Pass that wine over here," said Tom. "Now what were we talking about?"

They departed an hour later, making clear that they were doing so in their own time, and when the door had closed on them I braced myself for a tongue-lashing from the wife. She was calm, however, and said merely, "It's only because you're from Yorkshire that you could get away with that", before leaving me to load the dishwasher.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress