Sholto Byrnes: Tales of the City

All this champagne comes at the price of a fixed grin and a scary facility for small talk

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Summertime, and that exhausting six weeks or so when every gallery, magazine, publishing firm and fashion emporium decides to hold a midweek soirée is upon us. Not a night goes by when three or four (sometimes as many as 10 or 12) drinks parties are going on in Soho, St James's, Mayfair, down the far reaches of the Fulham Road and as far east as Shoreditch. Strange rituals can be observed at these events, as the truly party-hungry consult watches, murmur into mobile phones and then vanish, determined to attend as many gatherings as they can on the same night, oblivious to the time and taxi fares they will waste.

Summertime, and that exhausting six weeks or so when every gallery, magazine, publishing firm and fashion emporium decides to hold a midweek soirée is upon us. Not a night goes by when three or four (sometimes as many as 10 or 12) drinks parties are going on in Soho, St James's, Mayfair, down the far reaches of the Fulham Road and as far east as Shoreditch. Strange rituals can be observed at these events, as the truly party-hungry consult watches, murmur into mobile phones and then vanish, determined to attend as many gatherings as they can on the same night, oblivious to the time and taxi fares they will waste.

Sometimes barriers between ordinary people, like journalists, and the rather more famous break down as the condensation quickens on glasses of chilled champagne. At one party, Ben Okri delighted a friend of mine whom he'd just met by inviting us to join him at the next event he was going to that same evening. "They'd be so disappointed if we didn't go," he said as we nodded in agreement that, yes, it really would be rude to deny these strangers the pleasure of our company.

Other insights can be gained into the curious magnetism of the most unlikely people. At a birthday party at the Park Lane Hilton I talked to Andrew Neil for around 15 minutes, during which time five beautiful young women came rushing up to him as though his very presence was enough to make it the most thrilling evening ever. What is it about Old Brillo Pad?

And then there are the tribes of liggers, both the invited kind - those oddball celebrities whose idea of a good time is being pestered by gossip columnists in exchange for a free margarita and yet another mushroom vol-au-vent - and more weirdly, the uninvited. You notice them only gradually, these little clusters of vaguely plausible-looking people who seem to turn up at every party. They always dress smartly, and some of them bear slight resemblances to people who might legitimately be there; one man looks very much like the former BBC royal correspondent Michael Cole, for instance.

Not until you've observed them regularly does the truth dawn. These people don't have any reason to be at these parties, but they go so regularly everyone assumes that they are supposed to be there. They call each other up to find out what soirées are being held. "I might go to the Sotheby's summer party," they say, "but if not I'll be sure to catch up with you at the Krug do." The sound of mental notes being taken is almost audible as they remark: "Oh, is the Cartier polo next weekend? Well, I must go to that."

It's too cruel to delve into why these people are so desperate to have their social lives provided for them by parties attended, in the main, by those with a purpose. All that Laurent Perrier comes at a price, whether it's a reference in a newspaper column - "just a little mench," as the great boulevardier and nightclub host Dai Llewellyn used to say - the maintenance of rictus grins, or the cost to the brain from developing an unhealthy facility for small talk.

What twilight world do they inhabit for the rest of the time? Gentle enquiries have not so far unearthed much evidence of day jobs, at least as the rest of us know them. But one thing's for sure. I will be seeing them at the Air Gallery, at The Spectator, at Hatchard's...

Knickers to politics

The Tory leadership contest hasn't officially started yet, and already several of the contenders are managing to make themselves look a little foolish. We've had Liam Fox abseiling outside a London hospital - for charity, of course. Meanwhile Alan Duncan announces, in one of the more unusual contributions to British political discourse, that what the Conservative Party needs is "better frilly knickers". (Don't we all?) So I'm glad that the Tories' new shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, decided against joining this undignified fray.

This is partly because inheriting Maggie's handbag is a worthless prize at the moment, and at 34 George has years, if not decades, at Westminster ahead of him. But it's also because whenever I see him, whether it's on Newsnight, in the papers, or at a mutual friend's wedding, I can't get the image of George as an undergraduate out of my head.

When we were both at Oxford, George was known for his good manners, friendliness and sense of humour. But he was also known for his hair, which was long and curly and hung down to his shoulders, rather as though two black poodles had been attached to his crown. In the new, inclusive Tory party it's all right to be gay, to be a woman, or to belong to any race or religion. But is the party really ready for a leader who once had a Brian May haircut?

Name and shame

If you are the possessor of an unusual name, you'll know how bizarre it is when you find yourself talking to someone who shares your appellation. I found myself in this situation recently when speaking to Michael Howard's stepson, Sholto Douglas-Home, about a forthcoming exhibition of photographs by his late father, Robin Douglas-Home. There's an unavoidable awkwardness in addressing another person who has the audacity to claim ownership of a name you regard as exclusively yours. The other pitfall is people getting it wrong, or even, as Jeremy Paxman once did, claiming it must be an anagram. Mishearings can have humorous results, though. My favourite occurred when I'd once left a message for Edwina Currie. She returned my call, but asked for a person I now think of as my Jewish alter ego. "Is that Shlomo Bernstein?" she said.

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