Table talk so small it's tiny

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The Independent Online
TODAY'S guest expert is Armand Marzipan, Visiting Professor of Small Talk at Milton Keynes University. Today he helps readers who have problems with trivial conversation at table.

Not being a fan of opera, I cannot contribute to the conversations about Placido Domingo and Pavarotti that so often break out in the kind of society I am forced to frequent. I feel I ought to say something to show I am 'au courant'. Any suggestions?

Wait until the conversation gets round to the weight problems of these singers. Make a semi-inaudible reference to 'Fats' Domingo. Then, while people are still not sure if they heard correctly, say: 'Did you know Mario Lanza was killed by dieting? Yes, he was so weakened by an attempt to lose weight that he had a fatal stroke. Makes you think, doesn't it?'

Who is Mario Lanza? The Elvis Presley of operetta.

Who was Elvis Presley?

Blimey. Well, Elvis Presley was a white boy who made a fortune out of singing the black man's music.

Which black man?

Oh, for heaven's sake. Well, Arthur Crudup, for a start.

Who was Arthur Crudup?

We seem to be losing sight of our subject, which was meant to be small talk. We're talking tiny now. We're in danger of saying something interesting.

Almost every time I enter a conversation I hear somebody saying what a shame it is that 'Inspector Morse' is coming to an end. Who is Inspector Morse?

That's more like it. Morse was last year's father figure on television. He solved crimes without beating people up, thus reassuring people about police methods.

And why is it a shame that he is coming to an end?

Because John Thaw, who played Inspector Morse, is now, alas, free to go off and play Peter Mayle on BBC television.

Who is Peter Mayle?

Peter Mayle is a man who trivialised the idea of sex by writing the Wicked Willie books, and then decided to do the same for French culture by writing A Year in Provence.

I see. What line should I take about Peter Mayle?

You should say that of all the things in the south of France that the BBC could make a film about, possibly the least interesting is an ex-advertising man who wrote comic books about the male sexual organ and then moved to the south of France to use the money to pay people to do his house up.

I see. But what if people ask me to suggest an alternative?

You should mention the fact that for many years one of the greatest English writers, Graham Greene, lived in the south of France, and nobody suggested getting John Thaw to play him. You could also mention that Lawrence Durrell and Dirk Bogarde lived in the south of France and wrote about it, and nobody suggested getting John Thaw or indeed Dirk Bogarde to play either of them. You could then ask, meaningfully, what this tells us about the British.

Well, what does it tell us?

Not much.

No, come on - you can do better than that.

You should put forward the idea that what Britain likes most these days are tall, youngish, white-haired men with an air of knowing what they're doing, preferably called John. John Major, John Thaw, John Birt, John Cleese . . . Suggest they are basically the same person.

Are they, in fact, all basically the same person?


Where does David Gower fit into all this?

He doesn't. That's his tragedy.

The other day Graham Gooch came up in conversation and I didn't know who he was, so I asked if he was any relation to the great old GWR engineer, Daniel Gooch. However, I got the impression that I wasn't getting any Brownie points for this reference.

Of course you weren't. The British don't like show-offs. Nor do they like being shown up. Odds on you were the only person in the room who knew who Daniel Gooch was, so you were humiliating them.

So what do I say if Graham Gooch comes up in conversation again?

You say: Isn't it extraordinary that dark stubble was once the hallmark of the fashion-conscious pop world, and now it has moved downmarket all the way to the least fashion-conscious sport in the world - cricket? Yes, the five o'clock shadow has travelled all the way from Bob Geldof and George Michael to the chin of Graham Gooch]

Who is George Michael?

The Lord save us. This interview is now over.