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10 September 2023

Why do business people talk so loudly?

My afternoon treat of whitebait and oysters was ruined when Knob of the Year sat down at the next door table.

By Nicholas Lezard

Finally, summer, or something a lot like it. Normally around this time of year I write my “Boo-hoo summer is over and it was a rotten one anyway” column, but not this week. This also coincided with a bit of modest financial good news. Nothing that most people would get wildly excited about, but something that changed my daily budget for the rest of the month from a pitiful sum to something a bit more civilised.

How do you celebrate modest financial good news? Some people hit the fleshpots and indulge in dark vices; I went along to the Sussex County Cricket Club ground to watch them getting thumped by Durham in the county championship. I find that if you go around teatime they let you in for free for the last couple of hours, but when I got to the ground it was deserted, so I went for a walk along the seafront. I thought of going to the pub but then I remembered my favourite restaurant on Earth, the Regency, and also remembered that there was now an “r” in the month, so I thought: how about some oysters, a plate of whitebait and a flagon of the chilled house dry white? I managed to get a table outside and started noshing.

And then the Young Businessman sat down at the table next to me.

Now some people like business. Rishi Sunak likes it so much he thinks even people in homeless shelters are “in business”. I, on the other hand, think that business, like sex and religion, should be done in private, behind sound-proofed doors. Not on a glorious late summer’s day at a restaurant where you’re treating yourself for the first time in months.

But people who are In Business have no consideration, and conduct their sordid deals in public spaces. And here’s the thing: what they have to say is very, very boring. It’s all spreadsheets and emails and have you CC-ed Colin and it goes on and on and on, at great volume, until you want to run amok with your oyster fork, if you are in a fortunate enough position to have one.

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But it’s not just the volume, and the quite astonishing tedium: it’s the length. Not one of these conversations ever goes on for less than 30 minutes. It’s easy to time these discussions if you’re on a train, because that’s how long it takes to get from either Brighton or London to Gatwick, where most of these louts disembark. But if they don’t, then they’re with you for a full hour unless you take direct action. In my case this involves catching them very early on, fixing them in the eye and asking: “Are you going to be talking the entire journey?”

The etiquette among the outdoor seats at a seafood restaurant is perhaps more nuanced, so I settled for just staring hard at him from behind darkened glasses. This was not all that fun, for this entrepreneur still looked as if he was suffering adolescence: there was acne around his receding chin and it didn’t look as though he had started shaving yet.

And on and on he went, although after a while he started looking nervous. I thought of my anecdote fund. My Victoria Coren Mitchell Story is more rich in context than incident and takes five to seven minutes to tell. My Hunter S Thompson Interview Story has plenty of incident, and that can take ten to 12 minutes with a fair wind behind me. As for my I Got Arrested for Possession of LSD Outside Buckingham Palace During My First Ever Acid Trip Story, it has an incredible amount of gripping detail and can take at least 20 minutes.

What all these stories have in common is that, while they may have lengthy word counts, they hold their audiences rapt. No one ever yawns or walks off. Perhaps it is because over the years I have learned how to tell a story. The young seem to love them, particularly the LSD/Buck House story – even the Director’s Cut, which also includes the trial – and its surprise ending. They sit at my feet like the kids in Millais’s The Boyhood of Raleigh and inhale every word. When my children have their friends with them, they actually ask to hear it again. What no one wants to hear, not even once, is how you tracked down that invoice for 16 pallets of uPVC double glazing before Friday.

Behind my scorn for Young Business Knob of the Year was also pity. Mate, I wanted to say to him, it’s now gone five o’clock. You’re sitting out here on the sunniest, warmest day of the year with a nice cold beer and a plate of the house’s delicious calamari and chips. You’re also, by the sound of it, Australian, and if anyone knows how to enjoy a plate of seafood in the sun, it’s your lot. Put the phone down! Live! Carpe diem!

[See also: My new smart meter offers more drama than anything on TV]

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites