The party season brings with it many minor social anxieties. I no longer drink, so at least I have removed that complication from my life (or removed one arrow from my quiver of excuses for poor behaviour, depending on how you look at it). However, I still live under the shadow of giving inadvertent offence, not least by failing to recognise people; so I have now adopted a basic rule, which is to treat everyone as if they are incredibly well known and as if I have met them many times before; of course this limits the conversation to observations about the weather or the economy, while I continue to hope that they will let slip some vital clue that will help me identify them.
My ability not to recognise people is really one of my greatest talents. My children still collapse helpless with mirth when recalling the occasion on which I met Roger Federer. I was introduced to him at a dinner one summer and, once the preliminaries were over, I asked what he did and was informed that he played tennis. “Oh really,” I commented sagely, and then, feeling that some other observation was called for, ventured, “So when did you retire?” The extenuating circumstance was that it was late at night during Wimbledon and I would have thought that any top tennis player who was still wielding a racket for a living would have been in bed getting some rest before the following day’s on-court exertions rather than living it up at the Elton John White Tie do – as a sportsman myself, I know that when I am preparing for a backgammon tournament, I try and have a little lie-down in the afternoon.
I usually feel that I am on safer ground with people who know me (and not just because I stand a better chance of recognising them). I figure that if, having met me once, they are willing to talk to me a second time, they might be prepared to overlook my many shortcomings on the manners front.
However, this is not always the case. I got a decidedly low-temperature reception when I introduced two friends I thought would have much in common, omitting to introduce the wife of one of them first as of course I should have done – a wave of guilt swept over me and I think I might have compounded the error by blowing her kisses across the table all night long and patting the empty seat at my side in invitation. The thing is that my friend’s wife curtly informed me that as an expert on etiquette and manners I should really have known better – and she might have had a point, except that I have never held myself up as a paragon of correct form and etiquette. To be honest, I feel a bit of a lemon, bobbing up and down like a jack-in-the-box whenever a woman leaves or arrives at the dinner table and I am hopeless at all that heel-clicking and hand-kissing.
It might be that my interest in clothes is mistaken for expertise in etiquette. So I would like to take the opportunity to clarify things. The two things are completely different and it does not follow that I have exquisite manners, simply because I happen to have one or two nice suits and that I have chosen to equip myself with highly practical pieces of knowledge such as that when dining in one’s club in the early 20th century one wore a black waistcoat with one’s evening dress, whereas when eating in mixed company a white one was required. When it comes to gallantry, I am hopeless, and happily the issue of precedence (I am still in the dark about where to seat the second son of a belted earl in relation to the widow of a baronet) is not as much of an issue in Shepherd’s Bush as you might think – although I do find it bit tricky when the butler has a night off.
The only possible explanation I can come up with was that my friend’s wife mistook me for that king of etiquette, Julian Fellowes, except that he is an Academy Award-winning member of the House of Lords with a smash hit TV series – and I am not. However, given that I frequently get names and faces muddled, it would be hypocritical of me to criticise this in others, and in fact there are times when it is really rather gratifying; the other day, I was taken for Tim Jefferies. It quite made my day – I quite liked being mistaken for the best-looking man in London. It is just a slight pity that the mistake was made down a telephone line rather than face-to-face.