I was in this pub the other day, early in the evening, having a quick one before a nerve-racking interview with a publisher, when the man at the next table turned to me and said: "I could tell you a tale."
"If what?" I said.
"If what what?" he said.
"You used a conditional," I said. "One of the arbiters of the English language, like John Humphrys, would say that after a conditional you have to have another clause beginning with 'if'. 'I could tell you a tale if...'"
"If you buy me a drink," he said.
There was something about the man that appealed to me. Maybe it was a slight swagger. Maybe it was his ready way with an "if" clause. Maybe it was the fact that nobody has offered to tell me a tale for many years, if ever. Maybe it was his tarred pigtail, ear-rings and the parrot on his shoulder. So I got him a drink, and prepared to listen.
"I wouldn't set too much store by John Humphrys if I were you, cully," he said. "I heard him talking to John Prescott on the radio this morning and he said, with regard to Blunkett, 'Won't you find it difficult working in the Cabinet with someone whom you know has been saying these things about you?'"
"Did he really?" I said.
"Yes, he did," he said. "Used 'whom' when it should have been 'who'. Thought it was accusative. It was nominative."
"Was that the tale?" I said. "Hardly worth a pint."
He clutched his pint pot.
"Get your mitts off my beer," he said. "No, I shall tell you a tale of daring, of courage, of treachery and ultimate banality. Do you remember the Beaujolais Nouveau Race?"
This startled me. There was a time when it was a huge annual occurrence. The Daily Mail offered large amounts of money to competitors who brought in the first shipments. They came by plane, motor bike, helicopter and water ski. No, not water ski. You can't tow a case of wine behind water skis. But everything else. Then it all died the death and went out of fashion like Biba, feng shui and cuisine minceur. Nobody remembers the Beaujolais Nouveau Race any more.
"Were you in it?" I asked.
"No, I was in the Vieux Beaujolais Race." His eyes went dull for a moment.
"Vieux Beaujolais?" I said. "I don't remember..."
"Beaujolais Nouveau is best drunk young, so you had to get it over the Channel fast. But the finest Beaujolais is best drunk old, so the winner of the Vieux Beaujolais Race was the one to arrive last. Giving the wine time to mature en route. Understand?"
I was beginning to.
"I went in for the Vieux Beaujolais Race in 1985," he said. "Took two dozen cases. Set off from Beaujolais for Turkey."
"Anywhere that would slow me down. Didn't want to take a direct route. In Turkey I got involved in politics."
"Put in prison?" I said.
"Not at all," he said, surprised. "I became mayor of a small Turkish town. Did very well. Put in main drainage. Got the buses sorted out. Then went on to Israel, Iran and India."
"Just places beginning with I?"
"Precisely. I finally ended up in Indianapolis, where I fell in love with a defrocked TV newsreader, and we went through a form of marriage."
"What form of marriage?"
He thought about it.
"Insufficient," he said. "And now, to cut a long story short, here I am, home again. Luckily I have still got a case of the old Beaujolais left, so I went to the race headquarters and claimed my prize. Last home, after 19 years! Bound to be the winner."
"And were you?"
"They'd already given the prize away," he said, bitterly. "To a chap who turned up in 1997. Thought there couldn't be anyone else still racing. They were sorry and all that, but said they couldn't wait any longer. So I had wasted 19 years of my life!"
I bought him another drink. It was the least I could do. As I left the pub, I heard him say to a newcomer: "I could tell you a tale..."
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