Miles Kington: Wine stains? Use some intelligence, and a pinch of salt

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The Independent Online

The man next to me at the end of the dinner table had drawn the short straw. He was sitting next to me. I wasn't feeling at my brightest and best, and had already knocked my wine glass over once.

Luckily, there was no wine in my glass at the time, although, rather stupidly, this didn't stop my reflex action in scattering salt on the tablecloth just where I thought the wine would have gone.

"It's a strange superstition, that," said the man, "believing that salt will take red wine stains out of tablecloths. Why do you do it?"

"Because I was always told that it worked."

"Ah, but have you ever tested it? I have never met anyone who has tested it scientifically. And yet it would be oh, so simple. Get a long piece of unwanted sheet or pillow case, spill some red wine on it, and put salt on half of it. Then you would know for sure."

What he said was so insulting to my intelligence that I knew he must be right.

"Well," I said, "It's like that belief that if you pour white wine on ... on ..."

I couldn't remember what you poured white wine on. I felt stupid.

"Salt?" said the man, lightly.

"What?" I said.

"Maybe if you spill a lot of salt, you should pour wine on it."

I said nothing. I am not very good at having my leg pulled.

"So, what are you up to these days?" said the man,

"Same old thing," I said. "Scribble, scribble, scribble."

"And when do you propose to give up?"

"Me?" I said startled. "Never. It is my firm belief that writers never give up."

"It is also your firm belief that salt removes red wine stains," he said. "I think the time may be coming to re-examine your firm beliefs."

"Go on," I said, mentally fastening my seat belt and gritting my teeth.

"A lot of writers do give up writing, or, if they don't, should have. We all know the writers we mean. The ones who did their best stuff when they were young, and should have quit while they were ahead."

"Mmmmmmm," I said, halfway through a bit of toast and terrine. "But if I gave up writing, what would I do instead?"

"Intelligence work," he said.

" I beg your ..."

"I'm serious."

He talked to me for a while. It turns out that the traditional picture of people being recruited for MI5 and MI6 fresh out of university is now way out of date. More and more, the intelligence services are now recruiting people who are fresh out of a lifetime career – yes, experienced people who have already learnt the languages, found out about life, and had all the homosexual affairs they are ever likely to have. People who hardly need any more training, and are already beyond blackmail.

"People are living longer and longer," he said. "Stands to reason you should have older and older intelligence agents. The other side haven't tumbled to it yet, so we are streets ahead in the game. Nobody suspects us of having oldie agents."

"And you want me to ...?"

"Just think about it. For the time being."

A thought struck me.

"Have you already recruited any other writers?"

"Been going on for years, old boy. You knew Alan Coren, didn't you?"

"Yes, but ..."

"One of the things they kept saying in his tributes was that he never hung around after a recording of The News Quiz. Didn't have a drink with the rest of them. He was off like a flash. He said he was off home to have dinner with his wife. Of course he wasn't. He was off on the job."

"What job?"

"Oh, you don't get me that easy!" said the man. "Anyway, I'll be in touch."

I haven't heard from him since. Have any readers had a similar experience? And what would they advise me to do about being recruited by Intelligence? Failing which, what would they advise about red wine stains?