They were both talking to me, really - even after I had left the bar

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"Hotels? I know all about hotels. I've stayed at more hotels than I have had hot dinners," said the man at the bar. "Know what that means?"

"If that means anything," said the landlord, "it means that some of the hotels you stayed at didn't offer hot dinners."

"It means," said the man, "that I know about hotels."

"Of course," said the landlord," it could mean that they offered very good cold buffets. Nothing wrong with a good cold buffet."

They were not actually looking at each other. They were looking at me, the only other person present. I was valuable to them. Not only was I clearly not about to threaten them by speaking, I was also the only potential audience.

"Maybe I have been to more hotels than I have been to other people's houses. Would that surprise you?"

"Personally," said the landlord, who was off on his own track by now, "I'd rather serve a cold buffet than a hot dinner any day. It's very hard keeping a dinner hot. It's no problem keeping a buffet cold."

"The first time I stayed in a hotel," said the man at the bar, "I was so young and so green that I thought the notice saying `Private Functions' was a signpost to the lavatory!"

He laughed and chuckled at me. I smiled thinly, like a wary waiter.

"Of course," said the landlord, ruminatively, "it's a misnomer to say that a cold buffet is actually cold. It's just room temperature, that's all. The meat in a cold buffet is no colder than the bread or the napkins, but we don't say it's served with `cold bread', do we? Have you ever heard anyone asking for cold bread? Have you ever had cooked ham or salad sent back because it was not cold enough? Of course not. A cold buffet is a total misnomer. On the other hand, who would pay good money for something advertised as a `room temperature buffet'?"

"One thing I can tell you about and that is hotels," said the man desperately. "From Berlin to Mostar, from four star to no star, I've known them all."

"Is that a line from a musical?" I asked.

That brought a temporary stop to the conversation. The landlord and the man at the bar had both been addressing me, hoping to enlist me as an ally in their monologue. I was like a man doing the splits. Before I did myself an injury, I would have to opt for one or the other. I wanted to opt for the landlord, but curiosity made me opt for the man at the bar.

"Could be," he said evasively. "Point is, I have been around hotels long enough to see changes happening which you could never have dreamt of. When I started staying at hotels, you still left your shoes outside the bedroom door to be taken away and cleaned by the boots boy. You still got the early morning cup of tea brought to you. You still got wooden hangers in the wardrobe."

"Of course," said the landlord, "not only is `cold' a bit of a misnomer, but `buffet' is as well. `Buffet' really means `sideboard' in French, did you know that? And we don't even pronounce it properly any more. In French they pronounce it boo-fay, but in Britain we call it a buffy."

"Do you know what would happen if we left our shoes outside the door in a hotel these days?" said the man at the bar. "They'd get thrown away. They'd think you were trying to get rid of them. If you want them clean, you have to keep them and polish them yourself. That's the trend in hotels these days. Do It Yourself!"

"Every time they make an announcement on the train I shudder. `The buffy is now open for the sale of hot and cold drinks, blah, blah.' Buffy, my foot! Makes it sound like one of those old regimental nicknames. Buffy Orpington-Smythe."

"They give you the tea bag and you have to make your own tea. They give you the wardrobe with those ghastly hangers and you have to work out how they hang up. And what irks me is that they make you do it yourself and then call it service!"

"No, I tell a lie. Buffy isn't so much regimental as a name straight out of Wodehouse. There's another thing. Why is that name written Wodehouse and pronounced Woodhouse?"

When I crept out of the pub and looked in at the window as I passed, I could see that they were still both addressing the space where I had been. As the man said, pub conversation is two or more one-man bands playing at the same time.