Tales of Tippling

The ritual of an official reception is a minefield for the newcomer

When Lord Birkenhead was a little younger he was invited to address the annual dinner of one of the City Livery companies. A dreary occasion, but not dry at all. By the time the speeches began, everyone, including the guest of honour, was slightly the worse for wear.

The host rose, a little unsteadily and began, “Our guest today, needs no introduction from me . . .” and proceeded with the most interminable, rambling and impenetrable introduction imaginable. The drinking, which had paused in anticipation, began again as an anaesthetic. Eventually the old codger reached the home straight;” . . . and I now call upon our guest for his address.”

The gentleman in question rose, looked around, and replied, “It’s Grosvenor Square, and I’m going there right now.”

And a coda: A Labour MP, Jim Thomas, who prided himself on his working class background, and conscientiously dropped all his Hs, told Lord Birkenhead at a very stuffy dinner, “I’ve got a ‘orrible ‘eadache.”

“Oh, you poor old chap,” replied the good Lord, “what you need is a couple of aspirates.”

Protocol on official occasions is very important. A society hostess who was asked to include the Aga Khan on her guest list for a big dinner wrote to Debrett asking for advice. The reply is a gem:

“The Aga Khan is, to a Muslim, higher than any royal personage. He is revered by six hundred and fifty Mohammedans as the nearest thing to God. His supporters revere him and consider him near immortal. He should be seated below an English earl.