We have just walked from Quernmore to Abbeystead. We climbed over high moorland and at the high point we could see Blackpool tower on the far left towards Barrow in Furness on the right. To our front was spread a magnificent view of Morecambe Bay. We squelched through acres of farmyard muck and up and down numerous fields with Janet Kenyon a lovely person. She works as a nurse for half of each year in Bulawayo and she knows our team who works there well .
Jane and I had an altercation. We walked in parallel down the Lune and it was a delight, miles of beautiful gunmetal water flecked with silver. After four or so miles we needed to cross.
Jane found a crossing place and I went on a few hundred yards and found another. Dinah, our fool dog, for some reason came with me. Jane had the dog lead.
There were cows and sheep in front of me so I was stuck. Jane was nowhere to be seen. She rang me repeatedly but the ring tone on my Blackberry is clearly defective.
I waited for her with growing impatience. She waited for me with growing irritation!
When we finally met up Jane tore into me for being a fool. I tore into her for being a fool. We ranted away until we were purple, so I said:
“That’s it. I propose never to speak to you again!” Just like a child. Jane looked rather surprised.
Then we started to laugh. Then a kiss. That was it.
Good thing laughter. It sorts out nonsense. Nothing matters very much and most things don’t matter at all.
A Good Book
I have just finished a fine, insightful and sensitive book called “No Place to Belong”by Ann Warren, it is a must read for all of us who had problems when young. It is a miracle that Ann, who was more or less abandoned, has survived with a sense of forgiveness and humour. You can get it on Amazon.
It’s so easy to either bless or offend people without realising the effect of your words and actions. For example, some time ago I was flying back from Washington D.C. – on the terminal bus at Heathrow, I struck up a conversation with a man who told me about a problem he had. Of course, other people’s difficulties are so much easier to resolve then your own, and although I can’t remember the precise details, I recall suggesting a few novel ways of sorting out the matter. I then forgot all about it, as one does.
Months later, a total stranger approached me at a party and said, “I’ve been looking for you because you were so kind and wise, and the advice you gave me helped me enormously – so thank you!” I walked tall for weeks.
On another occasion, I was hosting an official party at the Milton Keynes Health Authority where I was chairman. Out of the blue, a stranger pinned me with a laser eye and announced, “I’ve been looking for you to tell you what a rude prick you are! You walked into my surgery the other day with a group of people and you totally ignored me. You never even said hullo! You are the rudest person I’ve ever met.”
Boom boom! On one occasion, I was the cause of some good, while on the other, well, to put it politely, wholly the reverse. Each time, I was wholly unaware of the “Tom effect”.
The Art of Banter
Years ago, Julian Critchley, an MP colleague of mine, told me that the only safe pastime in public life is to suck boiled sweeties. I have a complementary point: the only safe conversation you can have with strangers is to discuss the weather.
Banter is designed to kick-start dead conversations or new relationships into some sort of life. Each time it is deployed, you can’t avoid running a risk. This kind of raillery may cement a relationship, or it might blow one apart. It involves living dangerously, and this is especially true for the British – after all, we are probably the most reticent nation on Earth. However, the world would be a far poorer place without banter and we would laugh much less.
I am an enthusiastic banterer, an art I learned at school and during my army days. In the past, it has protected me from shyness, but these days, I usually turn to banter just to liven up living. On the whole, it’s a gentle affair, just an attempt to make a stranger smile and respond. Most of the time, it goes down well… but sometimes it can be woefully misunderstood, and then I am obliged to send yet another bunch of flowers and do a bit of grovelling.
A Biblical Blunder
A while ago, I sat next to a pleasant young lady at a group lunch following a lecture. She is the wife of a vicar and we had an inconsequential conversation, discussing various people we both vaguely knew.
Then perhaps the discussion flagged, for I asked her about the circumstances in which she had met her husband. She replied, “We’ve been married for two years, and I have known him for four.”
I then reposted part of an old line from the television sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News: “But I am sure you did not know him then in the Biblical sense.” The remark seemed funny when I first heard it and it must have stuck in my Teflon mind. There the conversation ended – I thought happily – and we both turned to talk to other people.
A few days later, I received an indignant email from this lady’s husband implying that I had questioned her over matters that no man should ever question a young woman, i.e. her sex life. For several minutes, I was completely nonplussed, and then slowly I resurrected the conversation and worked out where the misunderstanding lay. My joke had clearly backfired and morphed into my asking a complete stranger as to when she started to have sex. If this had been the case, it would have been the grossest possible intrusion, and why on earth would I choose to be so bad mannered?
Of course, if someone does not get a harmless joke, there’s no point trying to explain it. You can wonder why the woman hadn’t the wit to ask me to explain the comment at the time. However, if you want to get out of a hole, stop digging. I immediately apologised.
On another occasion, I was out shopping with my daughter Clare, looking for a present for Jane. I think I would rather commit ritual suicide rather than shop regularly, but sometimes I have to brace myself, think of England and just carry on.
In order to alleviate the boredom of it all, I asked the two perfectly ordinary assistants at the till, “Who’s the boss?” They both looked blank, so I (unwisely) raised the gear. “And which of you has the brains?”
It was hopeless. One of the ladies gave me a cold stare. All she had to do was to say, “I do and my friend is daft,” and perhaps her friend might say, “Rubbish, I have the brains,” and off we would go with a bit of banter – something, anything, to liven up a dull interlude. But no, it was like talking to a brace of prison warders.
Outside the shop, Clare put the boot in: “God, you are an embarrassing father! How could you be so naff? They both thought you were out on day release!”
Perhaps she was right – she usually is.
The Duke Effect
You have to be careful, for banter can be woefully misunderstood – as the poor Duke of Edinburgh discovered when he once talked about “slitty-eyed Chinese”. On another occasion, he saw a tangle of electrical wires and remarked, “It must have been an Indian who put that together”. A minor international dispute resulted. It was only banter but the Duke found himself in the headlines. When you have to talk to thousands of people you are bound to make the occasional slip-up.
Nicknames are a form of banter. One of my friends was a member of a polo club and one of the leading players was an Indian nicknamed “Dusty”. No one minded, and apparently Dusty had been called that all his life. But when the Daily Mail picked up on it, the nickname morphed into a racial slur. How I hate political correctness.
The late Sir Robin Day, the so called “Grand Inquisitor” and the Jeremy Paxman of 30 years ago, used to cause considerable offence at dinner parties when, to get a conversation going, he was known to turn to the lady sitting next to him and ask, “Do you prefer sexual intercourse first thing in the morning or last thing at night?”
Now, I wonder what the vicar’s reaction would have been if I’d put that question to his wife?