Sunday, 5 October 2008

Hi! I'm Joe Soap

People I've always envied are those who have the confidence to go up to a complete stranger at a cocktail party or a reception and say something along the lines of, "Hello, I'm Joe Soap." It seems to me to be an American thing: most Englishmen are, like me, too reticent and reserved to start a conversation with somebody to whom they have not been introduced. We stand alone at the side of the room, watching all those people who already know each other swapping jokes and generally enjoying themselves. Meanwhile, we wish we could pluck up the courage to approach one of the other wallflowers - who feels just like us! It's just so silly - but so English.

Mind you, I haven't been to many cocktail parties: I don't move in that kind of circle. I did go to a few many years ago. At the time I was a member of the Royal Naval Reserve and had been seconded to a joint services unit which specialised in the provision of anti-interrogation training. The officers (of which I was not one, being a mere Leading Writer) were all fluent in German, Russian or another language and would be used as interrogators in the event of a conflict breaking out.

Every year, just before Christmas, the JSIU would hold a cocktail party at the hall of one or another of the merchant guilds in London. Only one type of drink was on offer - champagne and brandy cocktails. I have very vague memories of the Old Bat and me falling into a train to go back to the honorary uncle and aunt's house where we were staying the weekend.

Other receptions have provided me with embarrassing moments, but not drunken embarrassing moments.

Through my job I was a member of the council of the Newspaper Society, a sort of lobbying body for regional and local newspapers. As a result, I attended a reception the NS gave at one of the big London hotels at which the guest of honour was Her Majesty the Queen. I can't think how it happened, but I was selected to be one of the people to whom the Queen was introduced. The chosen ones had to stand in groups of about five or six at one side of the reception room and the Queen was brought along to chat briefly to each group. My group were chatting with her about something or other - I can't remember what - when she turned to me and asked me a question. Unfortunately, she is so softly spoken and the noise from the rest of the room was so great that I didn't actually hear the question. I could hardly say, "What?" or "Can you speak up, please" so I just answered the question I thought she might have asked. She must have wondered where on earth they had dragged me in from!

On another occasion I was invited to a reception at Windsor Castle. I was standing in a corner of a room with a few others I knew when the Duke of Edinburgh came through a nearby door and tripped over the carpet. Luckily, he didn't fall. He turned to us and asked, "Do you know how old this carpet is?"

The following day I was rung by a national Sunday newspaper and asked what the Duke had said, to which I answered truthfully. Imagine my embarrassment when I was quoted - name and all - in the following Sunday's edition! I half expected to be hauled off to the Tower of London!

(The carpet was 150 years old and had been handmade in an Indian prison.)

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