Monday, 13 October 2008

Surviving a Dinner with Only One Gaffe

I recently attended a dinner at Broadgate Tower, the new 35-storey British Land development at 201 Bishopsgate that was only recently completed and isn’t actually opened yet. It was an interesting concept, although it did involve the guests clambering over a moat-like pit to reach the pavement by the building, then traipsing through passages amongst the endless hoarding, loud footsteps echoing amongst all the wood, searching for the entrance to the building, but after that there were plenty of staff with walkie talkies to point us in the right direction. The building has been topped out but is not yet open and work continues on the interior.

As I have these useless feet of a 90-year-old (see, I was wearing my day flats from work (as opposed to the nastier trainers I use to get there) beneath my evening dress, planning to change them in the ladies’ room as usual before checking my bag. As we moved up one of the glassy escalators lined with bright coloured light--one escalator giving off a purple hue, another in green—it occurred to me that there was unlikely, in this unfinished office building, to be the usual luxurious facility as in the Livery Halls and other venues in which we generally attended dinners, but surely they must have something. However, as we came out of the lift onto the 14th floor with a few other guests, we found ourselves in the middle of the reception already, a small jazz band playing and the guests milling about a few feet from the elevator. As I quickly crouched down on the floor and opened the overnight bag into which I had crammed my discarded suit and various things used for my transformation ablutions, reaching for my painful high heeled dress shoes in lieu of the mucky dull ballet flats, I was reminded of an episode of American sitcom King of Queens where Doug comes straight from work to his wife’s work reception at her boss’ fancy Manhattan flat, trying to change out of his delivery driver uniform in the lift as he’d had no other options, only to find that the lift opened directly into the penthouse flat and he was literally caught with his pants down. At least my situation was nothing like that.

The cloakroom was just a table with people taking things from you and putting them behind them in an unsafe way, but what else could have been arranged in what was a non-fitted out would-be office? I had to be sure my fellow guests were trustworthy and I doubt any of them would have wanted my suit and shoes, and no doubt the contents of my handbag would have had them all laughing, given that they were all enormously successful people and I am but a plebling.

I had had a brief scare in picking the dress for this occasion, and I normally didn’t bother. That is, I don’t normally attend such things nude, but because it is a work dinner, I don’t have the freedom to dress in some wonderfully fashionable number, and must dress in a subdued fashion acknowledging unspoken rules such as not revealing my shoulders (God forbid). I also have a self-imposed ban on colour, having once attended a dinner where I was one of about five women in an endless sea of dinner jackets, so I felt so fluorescent in my bright red vintage Chanel silk evening suit, all I wanted was to borrow a black jacket from a fellow guest and wrap myself away in it. So normally I sensibly dig something dull out of my closet of formal outfits, of which I seem to have millions, and of course most are rarely worn, and I often just wear a dressy black jacket with a dressy black skirt, and then I can tick the box and turn up not nude and not noticeable.

But I decided I was tired of attending these events in a dreary outfit that even I don’t like, dressing down and lacking even more confidence than usual because I look such a dull, sombre mess. So I searched for at least a pretty but still subtle and unracy black dress, and surprisingly could find nothing of the sort. Exasperated, at the last minute, I settled for a Phase Eight number in the John Lewis dressing room that I almost hadn’t tried on because it looked, on the hanger, like a stuffy old lady’s dress. But on the body, so to speak, it was fairly flattering even to me, certainly there was nothing old lady about it, but I thought it would still pass at a work-related dinner as it covered much more than any of the other dresses, but it didn’t look dull as it was all black lace and beading over a beige background, fitted and tea length.

Unfortunately, when I tried it on again at home the night before the dinner to sort out what accessories I would need, I realised with horror that the beige background caused me to look, from even a slight distance, as though I had taken a piece of black see-through lace, wrapped it tightly around my nude body, and then walked into a formal dinner. I was a bit panicky the whole next day, as I really thought such a daring lace-wearing move would surely be frowned upon….And I took my own black jacket to cover the whole thing so that I wouldn’t have to spend the whole dinner wishing I could borrow one from one of the male guests. Fortunately, once I had it on, a colleague approved it as looking fine so I didn't hide beneath a jacket, and it was true that, in the glare of fluorescent lighting rather than the dim energy bulb that I used at home, it was clear that the background under the lace of the dress bore no relation to my skin colour. Or so I hope; perhaps the whole evening had an accidental Emperor’s New Clothes theme…..

In any case, it was a surprisingly enjoyable occasion given the company; that’s what makes these things. I don’t like them; I’m inherently shy and would always, always, always rather be at home sitting on my sofa reading and watching the telly. But I’m so used to chatting my way through these now, I know I can cope these days. And it was kind of someone to invite me.

The views were lovely, looking onto the Gherkin, Tower 42, and smaller buildings all lit up wonderfully at night from our 14th floor of another tall building. One unexpected view I enjoyed was looking down on the buildings in the immediate surroundings, most of which had sports facilities on the roof that you would never normally see. We were looking down at numerous football games being played between company leagues, I suspect, and it was wonderful to think of this hidden world that no one ever catches a glimpse of, as it usually towers above us when we rush past at pavement level to catch our trains.

One of the speakers was Sir Simon Milton, the Deputy Mayor for Policy and Planning, and it occurred to me it was the first time I had heard someone dole out the Mayor’s policies whilst referring to ‘Boris’ rather than ‘Ken’, and it all sounded rather refreshing really, and as though someone who was carrying out consultations might actually take account of the result before imposing his will on the city anyway. We shall see. The speeches were interesting, although they seem less so now that I have learned a colleague had Clive Anderson as a guest speaker at her recent dinner.

At my wonderful table, I was flanked by impressive architects, generally company director/founder level, and one was also an LSE professor. They reeled off the projects in which they had been involved, which seemed to account for most of the major developments going on in the City today. One had been involved in planning “Stratford City”, part of the 2012 Olympic site, and he felt confident that things were moving along so well that we wouldn’t, as I had worried aloud, be held to ransom by the builders nearer the time, given that there was no room for missing the deadline.

Both diners immediately beside me were delightfully easy to talk with, perfect gentlemen, and made the evening much less terrifying than these things always promise to be when I don’t have the freedom to run to Cannon Street right after work to escape to my quiet life at home. My only fear is that I think I inadvertently let one of my dinner companions think that I fancied him. I didn’t though. He was perfectly lovely, and I have no idea why but we ended up talking about the fact that I was single, which I saw as presenting how great it was that I was independent and could do my own thing and go to any exhibition, theatre or concert I wanted, sometimes inviting friends, sometimes going at my own pace. He obviously saw it as a desperately sad position to be in and sweetly ventured, as my uncle once did, to comment about how he had acquaintances who had made happy connections through internet dating. Apart from expressing my slight fear of stalkers and other creeps you might meet that way (and I’m not saying it doesn’t work for some but I don't think I'll be interested 'til I'm desperately alone at the age of 80), I pointed out that it would be like false advertising since I wasn’t looking for someone. Well, he concluded, I was my own person, which was good.

Wasn’t he his own person, I asked, as he seemed very much to be so. “Well, I’ve got a wife and children”, he responded. This threw me, as it seemed he must then be saying that you erase your identity as an individual and give up absolutely everything when you marry and have children. This is one of my worries, and I pondered this disturbing development for a bit, no doubt with a stressed look on my face, and did something I often do: I forgot I was in the middle of a conversation and lost myself in thought about one element of it. Naturally, this caused said gentleman to look up to see why I had gone silent, only to find me with a twisted and possibly vacant expression on my face, or perhaps with a glazed smile plastered across it, at a time when a normal person would be saying things like, “So, how old are your children?” But I have zero interest in children anyway and was too lost in thought to remember to be polite.

I later realised the effect of all this was no doubt for him, after he announced he had a wife and kids and I went silent, to think to himself, “She’s gutted that I’m taken! She wants me and she's heartbroken!” Oh dear. Well, I suppose he’s used to his students thinking as much, and it wouldn’t do for me to email a near stranger after a dinner an even more twisted message saying, “Can I just clarify that…..”, and I think I’ll survive the embarrassment. Note to self: Stop disappearing inside your head in the middle of conversations. I spend way too much time in my head as it is, and am constantly being told off for “blanking” people on the street as I apparently, time and again, look directly into the face of a waving friend or colleague whilst I’m in major Dolly Daydream mode and walk straight past them, leaving them looking rejected amidst a crowd of strangers who noticed them being passed by.

Oh well, another dinner survived, another pang of guilt for saying so when the dear hostess was so kind to invite me yet I end up dreading these things, but frankly, unusually, this was one of the better ones, largely because of the company (despite my gaffe) and the lovely view. If only one could find a taxi in the City at night…seems they’ve all been recalled!

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