I saw a long cloakroom queue, but a young man could see emergent signs of resistance

Everything was going swimmingly at the New Statesman party until I decided to wander away from the group of seasoned old buffers with whom I had spent the first two hours of the evening and found myself pushed against the wall of the Serpentine Gallery by an enthusiastic young man with a bottle of Beck's who seemed enormously eager to counter a political position that, for the life of me, I couldn't recall ever having embraced.

"I don't think there's any need for one to feel so pessimistic. I really don't," he told me, even as I was carefully choosing on which leg to rest my weight. "There may not be any organised opposition to Blair and new Labour, but if you look around - I mean really, really look around - you can spot plenty of emergent signs of resistance." I briefly considered mentioning that the only emergent sign of resistance I'd spotted by really, really looking around the Serpentine Gallery was a rumbling complaint about the size of the cloakroom queue, but he was already into overdrive.

"I mean, there's the whole opposition to globalisation and the IMF. Stop the City. Then there's the Countryside Alliance. And the motorists boycotting the petrol pumps. And then there was that protest outside Downing Street about the Chinese immigrants who suffocated in that lorry. And then there's that French farmer who bombed McDonald's. Now, I'd have to agree with you that none, in itself, seems particularly significant. But think of them as straws in the wind."

"I suppose," I said wearily, wondering how I'd been able to earn quite so many conversational credits without the need to open my mouth, "that when we come down to it, what we're talking about here is getting out into the real world and uniting the fragments."

It was obvious from the distraught look on his face that I'd committed a serious solecism. There he was, only one-third of the way through a soliloquy that was to culminate with an ideological recommendation to "unite the fragments", and he'd been beaten to the syntactic punchline by someone whose propensity for any sort of radical action whatsoever was fundamentally belied by his overall appearance (Daks trousers and houndstooth sports jacket) and evident reliance on the gallery wall for lumbar support.

On this occasion, I was saved from further embarrassment by the arrival at my side of a man from the Guardian who was writing an article about the sinister nature of Living Marxism and wanted to know if my participation in the recent LM-backed Institute of Ideas had given me any clues about the sources of its funding. But even this intervention could not disguise my crass abandonment of a golden conversational rule.

I'd completely forgotten that the only effective way to disguise incipient senility is to sit silently through tediously familiar political monologues and then contrive to show enormous enthusiasm as the speaker reaches the utterly predictable conclusion. It is vital, for example, to be totally bouleversed by the radical novelty of such concepts as "globalisation", "communitarianism", "stakeholding" and "multi-ethnic diversity". One should also contrive to be moved to applause by the news that marijuana does less harm than tobacco, that there is nothing essentialist about being "gay", that feminism has been undermined by the academic appropriation of women's studies and that crime cannot be eradicated by throwing a few thousand more people into prison. Oh yes, one more thing. If there are a lot of fragments lying around, then it's really not a bad idea to think about uniting them.

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Miserable small-mindedness