An hour earlier I had stepped off a plane from Dublin and I was three-quarters deaf in one ear. I had a drink in the bar at Boisdales Canary Wharf and a gander at the seating plan. Fourteen to a table. I was on table 18. I went up the stairs. Only one person was already in place: a poised woman wearing a three-string pearl necklace. Everyone else must have been finishing their cigars on the terrace. My name card placed me beside her. I put my complimentary five-pack of hand-rolled cigars on the table, plonked myself down, and said, ‘Hallo, I’m Jeremy.’ ‘Jean. Jean Trumpington,’ she said. ‘Do you smoke cigars, Jean?’ I said. ‘The last time I smoked a cigar was behind a cowshed in East Kent,’ she said. ‘And that was many, many years ago.’ Further conversation revealed the startling fact that she was Baroness Trumpington, agriculture minister in Lady Thatcher’s government. ‘Have you ever been to the House of Lords,’ she said. ‘Nope,’ I said. ‘Then you must come to tea,’ she said.
The vast room now filled with people wearing evening dress searching for their tables and places. A pleasant chap seated himself on my left and introduced himself as Tom. He enjoyed reading The Spectator, he said, particularly the Low life column. I asked him what he did. He was a restaurant critic, he said. And then Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared like a tanned, solid-looking genie, right in front of us. I could have reached out and caressed him. This was the Spectator Cigar Smoker of the Year 2014 awards and the Terminator was a nominee, apparently. He smiled unflinchingly into the repeated volleys of the jostling photographers’ flashguns.
‘Is that Arnie?’ said the Baroness. I said that it was. As we were both a little deaf we had to put our heads together to make ourselves heard above the rising hubbub. ‘Now listen,’ she said. ‘I want you to introduce me to him. I must have my photograph taken with him to show my neighbours. The people upstairs are terribly excited about me being in same room as Arnold Schwarzenegger and I need proof or they won’t believe me. Will you do that?’ I agreed, but was made redundant from my job almost immediately because Arnie gallantly came over to introduce himself to her. The phalanx of snappers followed him over and they took about 500 photographs of Arnie bending from the waist to introduce himself to the seated Baroness. ‘Get out of the way!’ chorused the snappers to me.
Arnie returned to his table and dinner was served. The pleasant bloke on my right was reminiscing with a chap opposite about the comedian Peter Cook. I poked the Baroness with an elbow and said, ‘This chap on the other side of me: do you know him?’ ‘Tom? Yes, as a matter of fact I do,’ she said. ‘His mother is married to the Prince of Wales.’ ‘I see,’ I said, sticking another forkful of white crabmeat into my gob.
A chap with a neat beard seated opposite the Baroness and me, three seats to the right, was also a cynosure. The snappers kept coming and massacring him with their flashguns, and various individuals sidled up to his chair and shyly asked for his blessing. ‘Who’s that?’ said the Baroness. ‘Hang on,’ I said. I turned to Tom. ‘Tom,’ I said. ‘Who’s that over there? Him with the beard arrangement.’ ‘It’s Kelsey Grammer,’ he said. ‘Remember Frasier, the hit US sitcom? Him. Please excuse me,’ he said, rising from his chair. ‘I’m the compère and it’s time for me to get up on stage.’ So he went off, and Frasier, perhaps needing to spread himself out bit, spotted Tom’s empty chair and came and occupied it. ‘Are you Frasier?’ I said. Smiling affably, he smartly extended a ramrod forearm with a huge and hygienically clean hand on the end. I said, ‘Are you going out tonight, Frasier? Because if you are, don’t go without me.’ ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I think that a few of us maybe have a sort of a plan to go on somewhere.’ ‘Count me in,’ I said. ‘Don’t,’ I said sternly, ‘leave without me.’ He promised faithfully. I turned to the Baroness and reported the encounter to her. She listened carefully, fascinated. ‘Why don’t you come with us, Jean?’ I said. ‘I’m going home to bed,’ she said firmly. ‘I’m getting up and going to Waitrose in the morning.’
And then I heard my name mentioned from the podium. ‘What did he say, Jean?’ I said. ‘You are presenting the first award,’ she said. ‘Jolly good luck.’
So I went up on the stage and did that. And the evening went on like that, with one pleasant surprise after another, and it was one of the most fantastic evenings I’ve ever had.
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