My story about the librarian with a pet crocodile and a six-foot phallus was a big hit

Last Wednesday night I spent two hours, sitting on a high stool in the Majestic Hotel, Harrogate, leering at women half my age. It's not a posture I'd like to strike in front of close friends, but now that things aren't going too well at home I thought it time to give my seductive muscles a brief workout. (My partner and I are currently locked into a long-running argument about psychological space. She's singularly unable to grasp the notion that I not only have a deep personal need for such "me" time but occasionally, say every Monday and Wednesday evening, may choose to fill it with the latest offering from Sky Sports 1).

There were also good reasons for thinking I'd do well at Harrogate. My talk to the British Association of Assistant Librarians on change management had been well received (one woman laughed so much at my story about the chief librarian with the six-foot phallus and the pet crocodile that she had to be helped from the room). And then, even as I was ordering my first large vodka and tonic, I'd been approached by a vaguely recognisable ex-student from York ("Carol" or "Charlotte"?) who wondered where I'd been on holiday because I was looking younger than I had ten years ago in her Baudrillard seminars.

I felt mildly awkward on my high stool (my legs don't dangle as well as they did in the past) but as soon as I'd lit a Camel Light and given my vodka a meditative twirl, I found myself remembering the basic conference techniques. First of all one must appear intellectually obsessed with some aspect of conference business. (My preferred line on Wednesday was: "Isn't it tragic the way librarians are abandoning their heritage by deciding to call themselves Information Officers?") This immediately suggests you are a far more passionate person that any of the dodos they've been forced to listen to in the plenary sessions but also slightly too cerebral to be actively plotting two hours of rumty-tumty in a junior executive suite.

My second golden rule is to stay away from the dance floor. I've found in the past that no matter how successful I've been at presenting myself as a person with a compulsive interest in librarianship, once on the dance floor there is something about the frenetic pumping of my arms and my predilection for flipping up the corners of my jacket as I go for a fast spin which suggests that my commitment to the politics of the issue desk is less than wholehearted. On Wednesday night this was a relatively simple resolution to keep because the conference band (the Shelf Stackers) was entirely composed of librarians and featured a bass player who sounded as though he was kicking a large suitcase and a drummer who gave a convincing impression of someone endeavouring to build a garden shed.

It wasn't a bad workout. No direct hits but two near misses. I might have succeeded with an assistant librarian from Halifax if only she hadn't been called away to collect a raffle prize of mixed fruit at the very moment I was moving towards my conversational coup de grace ("I can't help but notice that you have sad eyes"); and there was the dramatic reappearance near midnight of the ex-student who'd earlier come up with the flattering reference to my youthful appearance. For a moment she appeared not to recognise me so I nudged my stool along the bar towards her, took a deep drag on my Camel and whispered in her ear. "It's Dorian Gray." She turned quickly. "No, it's not," she said with an authority I'd always found lacking in her seminar contributions. "It's Catherine Scott. I knew you couldn't remember."

This article first appeared in the 20 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Men vanish from the universities