“TALK ABOUT ANYTHING YOU LIKE. It doesn’t have to be about fish.” That was Simon Inness’ only guidance to me following my gushing agreement to do what I vowed I would never again do: give an after-dinner speech.
Fish? I said. Why ever would I talk about fish?
“Ha-ha! Quite! Absolutely no reason at all old boy,” chuckled Simon down the phone. “I know you journalists don’t like to write to order. . . prefer to keep your powder dry, eh?”
I had been asked to give an after-dinner talk to what I erroneously concluded was – unlikely as it might seem – a politician’s support group called the Glendale Grayling Club.
So what if the Transport Secretary HAD recently increased rail fares by three-and-a-half percent? That of itself didn’t make Chris Grayling MP a monster, did it? Even Conservatives, just like the unions, have the right to kick us in the teeth from time to time.
Besides, the toffs up here in Northumberland’s Godzone – bed ‘n’ Brexit capital of Britain – are all mad about the Tories: Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt score a particularly big plus with the country squires and their serfs. You must’ve heard of the College Valley Fox-Hunt Supporters Club? I know, the unelectable in pursuit of the inedible and all that, but everyone has a right to an opinion, however daft it might be.
Anyway I thought I should let Chris Grayling’s office know that I would be speaking to his fan club at the Tankerville Arms in Wooler that evening and that presumably he would be attending. The auto-response to my call was discouraging:
“You have reached the Westminster office of the Secretary of State for Transport, Mr Chris Grayling. . . Press 1 to register support for the recent 3.5% increase in national rail fares. . . Press 2 to support his call for a No-Deal Brexit or for the fastest possible way to get UK out of the damned EU. . . for all other matters please hold.” I held.
The human voice that eventually answered gave me the first indication that something was amiss: his office knew nothing about any ‘Glendale Grayling Club’. Further investigation was called for: after all, I’ve made this mistake before.
Booked one year to speak at the RAC Club annual dinner, I was surprised to find it was to be held not in some blue-and-white painted wooden clubhouse on a moorland B-road in the wilds of Wales but at a rather grand building with Doric columns and an enormous polished brass plate in London’s Pall Mall (so daunted by the location was I that I feared they wouldn’t let me in because I was at the time a member of AA Relay).
Anyway, I was determined not to be taken by surprise again. When Simon’s wife Alison arrived to convey me in some style to the appointed place – becoming, as my chauffeuse, the only woman I was to meet , apart from the Tanky’s charming cadre of waitresses, on that all-male evening – I asked her if the minister was expected to be present.
“I shouldn’t think so,” Alison replied. “I think the Grayling Club DID have a United Reformed Church parson on its books for a while but if it’s the Grace you’re worried about (it WASN’T!) then Simon usually fills the bill, as well as giving the Loyal Toast and doing the raffle.
“At least,” she continued, “you won’t be expected to talk about fishing. Some of the members will have been doing it all afternoon in the annual competition so they’ll be looking forward to anything but grayling talk.”
Grayling! Fishing! Of course! In the dark of the car my face turned pale. At last the penny had dropped: this was no political coterie gathering to celebrate its eponymous philosophical pin-up but a fishing club determined to eat, drink and be boastful about the ones (they will claim) DIDN’T get away!
Two hours later, at the close of the remarks that I had shredded, shortened and made altogether more cheerful by the exclusion of any Grayling other than the piscatorial variety, the fishermen of the waters of Glendale flattered my performance with altogether undeserved compliments.
It had been, I told them, a considerably happier outcome than the last time I had spoken at a Tankerville event, the (in)famous annual Herds’ Supper some years earlier which, although packed to the rafters with hard-drinking shepherds and farmers down from the hills for their ritual shindig, actually appeared to boast more guest speakers than guests.
They made, to be sure, a terrific line-up: the manager of Lilburn Estates, the Master of the North Cornwall Hunt, a former Punch magazine diarist, sheep breeder and agri-college lecturer Hans Pörksen as well as a folk duo providing musical interludes during constant ‘comfort breaks’ and an unstoppably funny Tyneside comedian who leapt to his feet whenever he felt the evening was in danger of flagging.
Then came me. I found out later they had drawn lots for the running order before my arrival and, sure enough, my turn to step up to the gallows came at precisely ten minutes after midnight by which time I and the penned-in shepherds had been drinking solidly since 7pm. By this time, aware of the boredom and barracking that had set in on earlier speakers, my four sheets of A4 notes had been trimmed, first to two, then down to one before finally ending up as three anecdotes scribbled on the back of my place card.
My spot at the microphone over almost before it had begun, I staggered outside for some cooling winter night air. A farmer joined me, lit up and studied me piteously.”You the fella that writes in The Journal?” he finally asked. I said that I was.
“I only came here the neet ‘cos they said you was funny, like.” My post-midnight talk seemed to have aged and saddened him. I mumbled an apology which struck a sympathetic chord with my critic. “I s’pose you were okay, like,” he said, suddenly eager not to appear rude. Another heavy silence before the axe fell.
“We had the Duke here last year, ye naa?. Noo he WAS funny!”
That was the final straw. “I don’t suppose His Grace had to contend with getting on AFTER MIDNIGHT following FOUR major speakers, TWO musical interludes, THREE comedy spots and an audience of shepherds down from the hills that hadn’t seen a human soul all year and had been drinking like fools for FIVE hours?” I snapped. He extinguished his cigarette and went back inside.
Rude of me, I suppose. Conduct unbecoming a guest speaker. But a man can only take so much.
Happily, the Glendale Grayling Club were gentlemen by comparison. . .