Sunday, 19 January 2014

Get out of bed as soon as you wake up or you’ll lie there remembering horrible parties in Pinner

I made the mistake the other morning of not getting out of bed as soon as I woke up. This is the part of one’s day when, unfocussed and still summoning the strength to face the world, one is prey to fears, resentments and unpleasant memories. I'm prey to thoughts of such dismal bleakness if I lie on for a few minutes that I used to think there was something wrong with me. But then I read an account by James Boswell (I think it was in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, though I could be wrong) of how he also suffered from dark thoughts immediately upon regaining consciousness. He likened this state to being mentally  “unmann’d” (physically, of course, he was invariably as “mann’d” as a tent pole).

So, the other morning, I tried to go back to sleep, but instead found myself reliving in ghastly detail a horrendous party I attended over 30 years ago. My girlfriend at that time - a qualified barrister - had persuaded me to accompany her to the birthday celebrations of a lawyer who, I seem to recall, she’d been in chambers with. After qualifying, my girlfriend had decided not to go into practice, but her colleague had gone on to forge a stellar career at the bar. He lived in a vast, soulless, modern house in Pinner in the far north-west of London. (All I know about Pinner is that Elton John was born there and that I always shudder when I hear it mentioned.) As we sat in the back of a cab (we seemed to go everywhere by cab in those days - where did my life go wrong?) my girl-friend warned me, not for the first time, that I might find the people we were about to meet a bit strange.

The party was already well underway when we eventually arrived. Our host turned out to be a classic young, posh, skinny, blond, socially awkward Englishman. There must have been at least 100 guests – and every damned one of the bastards was either a lawyer or a spouse. To put it mildly, I was not made to feel welcome. I must have been wearing the wrong clothes, or perhaps it’s because I look a bit foreign, but they seemed to know before I even opened my mouth that I wasn’t a member of the legal profession. The first four or five charmers my girlfriend valiantly introduced me to asked me what I did for a living. When I told them I was a writer, their eyes glazed over as they muttered something like “Oh really? How interesting” and either desperately scanned the room for someone normal to talk to (“Oh, there’s Boofy Smith-Smythson – do forgive me, I must go and say hello – a very dear friend”) or they’d zero in on my partner: “So do tell what you’ve been up” (apart, of course, from getting hooked up with this enormous weirdo). One particularly pompous ass with a braying voice actually grabbed my girlfriend’s arm and led her away, glowering back at me, with the words “I must introduce this young lady to some very old friends of hers!” Arsehole.

Remarkably, I didn’t get drunk and insult anyone, but instead found a chair in a corner of the hangar-sized room and did some deep breathing to quell my rage as I listened to snatches of anecdotes about the frightfully amusing things this judge or that head of chambers had said or done, interspersed with alarming outbursts of aggressive, humourless laughter. Occasionally, someone would pause in front of me and ask what I did for a living, and then say “Oh look, Snookie Smugson – haven’t seen him in absolute yonks…” I cheered myself up by recalling that I had (for all of five minutes) considered switching from Philosophy to Law at university – and that, if I had, I might very well have ended up surrounded by mannerless fuckers like this lot.

Mercifully, the ordeal eventually ended and we found ourselves sharing a taxi back to Baker Street with a podgy young barrister dressed in a cream suit who was very drunk and who kept bursting into song (Puccini arias, I seem to remember). I would have asked the minicab driver to stop so we could strand the idiot on the North Circular, but the chap had started the journey by telling us all about the operation for testicular cancer he’d just undergone, and I sort of assumed he'd suffered enough.

When we got back, after assuring my girlfriend that it hadn’t been as bad as all that, I poured myself a humungous Scotch and took it into the bathroom, then stuffed as much of a towel as I could manage into my mouth and roared with anger as loudly as I could, trying to get it all out of my system. “Are you all right in there?” I heard. “Fine – something in my throat.”

I’ve met many barristers since that dreadful night, socially and at work. Most of them were perfectly nice and I counted at least two of them as friends for a while (interestingly, both of them were, compared to the blisters I met at that party, outsiders - one was Jewish and one was gay). I’m sure many members of the bar are cultured, sensitive people who wouldn’t normally dream of being unkind to an outsider. It’s just that, in my experience, when you have too many members of the same profession and same social and educational background gathered together in one spot, they seem to become insufferably clannish and insular and to display a tendency to entirely forget their social duty to try to put others at their ease. (One dreadful evening, my wife and I found ourselves at a party where 90% of the guests turned out to be bankers. Luckily, I didn’t have an automatic weapon about my person. They weren’t quite as ghastly as the lawyers, but they did manage to reduce my wife – for the first time in her life – to tears of boredom. Inevitably, we ended up spending most of the evening talking to each other.)

The moral of this tale is, if you’re anything like me, behave like a scalded cat the instant your eyes open and leap out of bed. And, of course, make sure you're not the only non-lawyer in the room.


  1. "L'esprit d'escallier". 3 am! No more sleep that night!

  2. I woke up this morning.

    Radio 4's Today programme had an item on young men who appealed against conscription during the First World War. One of them said it was a matter of conscience – viz., he was a socialist. The tribunal judge dismissed the appeal on the grounds that if he was a socialist he couldn't have a conscience.

    I went happily back to sleep.

    1. I presume the story was introduced in order to mock the silly old judge? What a splendid chap he must have been - and dead accurate: if we are all guilty in a very real sense, then I suppose nobody has to worry about a personal conscience.