The British should learn how to roll their credits at the dinner table

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The Independent Online
Had dinner with John Lahr, the New Yorker scribe, drama critic and biographer of Joe Orton. Mr Lahr has recently turned down the chance of writing the life of Rosanne Barr, with the co-operation of the lady herself, and ensuring himself a pension of half a million dollars. (It seems he couldn't guarantee the co-operation of Ms Barr's parents, without whose testimony the project was fatally compromised.)

A delightful fellow, Mr Lahr, with a nice line in family anecdotes. Once, when the Lahr family was dining with a party of friends that included Harold Pinter, Lahr's young son, Chris, after listening to the gruffly martial playwright for a moment, took his father to one side.

"Daddy," he said, "Is that man a policeman?"

"No, son," said Lahr. "He is a very fine writer."

"Oh," said the boy. Then a thought struck him. "Can he do a W?"

Lahr, who has lived in England for 25 years, was impressed by a phenomenon. "I'm used to it, but Americans are always amazed by the way British people don't roll their credits at the dinner table." Meaning? "Since work is the only signifier of class and success in America, New Yorkers will tell you just how important they are, and what they do, in the first few sentences. They get alarmed by the way British people won't do that." And get this: although it may be a gaffe to ask a famous film director what exactly he does, it's far worse not to ask, if you don't know.

Exhausting, eh? But I'm with the Yanks on this one. How often has one sat chatting about the shortcomings of the Eurostar or the price of Safeways' own-brand jelly beans with a fat biker in a wispy moustache, only to discover later that it was Sir Harrison Birtwistle?

Well never, actually. But a friend reports that the other day she was seated next to a well-scrubbed public schoolboy called Nick in a wine bar by the British Museum. They talked about the weather, Henry James and the menu. She asked, What do you do? "I run a little gallery." Sort of an art gallery? "That sort of thing."

She thought of those tiny little sculpture emporia in the Portobello Road. Did he get many people coming in? "Oh, one or two ..." he said vaguely, and seemed relieved to return to discussing the tennis. Only as she watched his retreating figure crossing Pied Bull Yard did she learn he was Mr Nicholas Penny, curator of the little National.

On my desk lands a copy of Playground Memories, a privately printed book of celebrity reminiscences of schooldays, compiled to raise cash for two schools in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, and introduced by the increasingly nice Mr Major. As with all such compilations, it features blokeish confessions from sporting types (Geoff Hurst admits to being taken to court and fined pounds 1 for kicking tennis balls over a neighbour's garden wall) and staggeringly boring contributions from MPs.

Either they're the pipe-smoking, ruminative type ("I wonder when the word 'playground' was first used? It has a sort of late Victorian feel about it" - Kenneth Baker) or else the humourless-bureaucrat style ("Effective school ground use is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children ..." - Paddy Ashdown). But leafing through, one pulls up short at the contribution by Michael Heseltine. He has nothing to report about schooldays, the maintenance of playgrounds or anything else.

Instead, he tells the thunderstruck scholars of Amersham about an angling competition he entered in 1941. Using a rod and bread-paste bait, he fished for half an hour and caught nothing. Then ...

" 'Try them,' said a voice offering me a can of wriggling maggots. One and a half hours later, I had caught 39 fish. They weighed 11 and three- quarter ounces. I won seven shillings and sixpence and I was the junior champion for a year. Happy days!"

Well, there's a lesson for life: if you want to get on, you must acquire a number of hapless, defenceless, wriggling invertebrates, impale them on a hook and drown them, for your own greater glory and advancement. Whether they're miners, junior ministers or members of Her Majesty's press.

Mr Heseltine would, I dare say, rather be seen dead than playing conkers, then or now. But as my daughter has started arriving home with armfuls and can-loads of the things, I've been slipping into Sad Old Git mode. Ah happy days, Ubi sunt etc. How my trusty 95-er sliced and cracked its way through the chestnut sheen of a myriad tiny opponents, splintering their proud, purple-ochre carapaces with cruel ... Well no, actually, my conker usually went rolling across the skool tarmac after the first blow (inadequate knot expertise - I blame myself) to be stomped to a pulp by the cruel bullies of Lower Elements.

Is it too late to get my own back by entering the World Conker Championships this Saturday in Ashton, Northamptonshire? I rang the Isle of Wight chapter of the international conker circuit, whose regional heat was played last Sunday. Top dog in horse-chestnut circles is a chap called Simon Dabell, who has a master criminal's grasp of conker-cheating lore.

"The traditional method, still very popular, is to soak the conker in vinegar for four weeks, then bake it very gently in a low oven, like an Aga, until the shell is rock hard. Other people swear by simply leaving it on a mantlepiece for a year. Still others keep it on a ledge inside the chimney for six months."

Mr Dabell strongly disapproves of all forms of sharp practice, "which is why we supply contestants with all sporting materials". He's a stickler for rules: you make a hole with a drill, not a skewer, for fear of ruining the grain; you use a shoelace, not a string to dangle it from: you must leave nine inches of lace between conker and thumb. But I'm afraid this may all be getting a little too arcane for you.

And now that, according to Mr Dabell, schools are starting to ban conker games in the playgrounds of the South-east (potentially too violent, and you run the risk of leaving your adversary with a terrific bruise on the knuckle), the whole concept of having fun with shiny nuts will die out anyway, and the nation's youth can go back to exercising their hand-eye co-ordination with Mortal Kombat and Schoolyard Slaughter.

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