I went to an after-work drinks event yesterday at the offices of an international law firm. It was organised by the International Business Forum, which brings together foreign and local business people from all walks of life. It’s a worthy cause. You never know when you might make a useful business contact, and the company is usually stimulating, intelligent and friendly.
But I’d forgotten that I’m off the booze, and that you can’t do events like this without a glass of wine in your hand.
I’m actually off all sorts of things, on the orders of my doctor, Dr Babkova, in an attempt to reduce the acid, cholesterol and sugar in my blood, and the intersection of what I’m permitted to eat for all of these conditions contains just a few things such as radish, tomato and fish.
I’m an early arrival and find myself in a room that’s largely empty. I launch myself at a Peruvian man and suddenly I find myself talking about Chile, somewhere I’ve never been, know nothing about, and have no intention of visiting. It’s ‘the Switzerland of South America’, he tells me (mountains? chocolate? clocks? money?), a country that apparently embraced market economics under Pinochet and thereby raised the standard of living of nearly everyone in the country. I squirrel this away for later use, though I dimly remember having exactly the same conversation with the same man at a previous event some weeks ago.
I gate-crash a cluster of people I’ve known for years and we talk about the glacial pace of the legal profession.
‘Effectively a cartel,’ someone says.
‘The last unreformed profession,’ I say, as I always do.
We’re in the company of lawyers, but they don’t seem to demur.
Then I chatter with a man who runs a music bookshop. We talk about the Associated Board Grade Five Theory exam, and about whether an algorithmic approach could be useful for the Grade Seven Theory melody exercise (though how you carry an algorithm into a music theory exam I’m not quite sure). I tell him that my brother Jonathan wrote a Fortran program to generate harmonic progressions, and then, riffing away, I tell him that when we were at school together he also arranged Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for just oboe and flute.
‘They didn’t ask for an encore,’ I quip.
This isn’t true, and I don’t actually know why I’m saying it. What he actually did was to arrange Stravinsky’s Ragtime for just three instruments, but such is my desperation that I feel the need to stab at something bigger.
My drinking a glass of still water instead of alcohol provides for a few minutes’ conversation as I meander around the room, but I begin to fear I may be repeating myself. In any case, it’s not a topic that catches fire.
An elderly acquaintance stands guard over a bottle of claret at the drinks table. ‘It’s a bottle of quite exceptional quality for an event like this,’ he tells me. He seems to have drunk most of it. I try a tiny splash and agree with him, but this, of course, just makes matters worse.
There’s an explanation for the excellence of the wine. The event, it seems, is sponsored by a French company who have provided champagne, wine and a few plates of fabulous cheese and salami (forbidden to me, of course, but I nibble them nevertheless).
There’s also a quiz – two sides of questions about the Eiffel Tower – and I come joint second with the owner of a university. My prize is a box of macaroons, but of course I’m not allowed to eat them. I hand them round and offer the last one, an enticing white one, to a man whose hair is exactly the colour of the macaroon.
‘I’m offering you this macaroon,’ I tell him, ‘because it’s exactly the colour of your hair.’
He doesn’t seem to mind my saying this, indeed chuckles almost gratefully.
Our hostess tells us she lunched at the British Embassy with a minister called Francis Maude.
‘It was a small lunch,’ she says. ‘Only twelve. The minister asked each of us to name the most annoying impediment to business development in the Czech Republic.’
‘I would have said “More trains”,’ I say.
My friend and former neighbour, an elegant elderly American lady, invites me to a business conference in Lvov.
‘Formerly Poland, and largely Roman Catholic,’ I trot out, as I always do whenever Lvov is mentioned. ‘My friend Tony visited it and found it empty and dull.’
I should really be promoting my business, though, so I chunter around the room muttering ‘MPs’ expenses,’ but to no avail. I long for the fire alarm to go off, or a stripper to have arrived at the wrong address, or even a small murder.
NEVER go to events like this unless you can drink a glass of wine or two. I wonder, in despair, how events like these can possibly work in places like Iran, where alcohol is entirely forbidden. You just can’t do business chit-chat on orange juice or water.