I fell foul of the #metoo Generation last night.
“Excuse me,” she said, smiling sweetly as I hobbled across the ballroom floor at the Connaught. “Excuse me, but I thought what you said about diversity just now was a little rude. . .”
Well I think she said ‘rude’ but I can’t be certain. The key word and chunks of what followed were camouflaged by the eruption of sound engineered by the mobile disco’s morose DJ signalling that the formal portion of the British Journalism Awards presentations was over and that the dancing should begin.
Journalists don’t dance. The younger ones, high on the excitement of being asked to join their editor’s expensive table at the annual ‘do’, are far too busy trading boasts and gossip and seeking potential partners for a “let’s make a night of it” excursion to the nightclub next door. The middle-aged, middle class, middle executives who still nurse ambition are too busy backstabbing and buttering-up to even think of strutting whatever stuff they have left amid the forlorn debris of a Fleet Street fandango.
No. We cottonheads with our big bellies and bogus reputations as braggarts who bullied our way to the top are the only card-carrying members of the company to venture onto the bottomlit postage stamp of a ballroom space. And only then as a shortcut to the lavatories (too much wine with beer chasers over dinner followed by an hour or more of mind-numbing, bladder-challenging build-ups to “And the winner is. . .” produces a graceless stampede of the Hot Metal Generation towards the (hopefully) deserted loos on the floor below.
So that was how we met: in the middle of a deserted dance floor, she young and slim in little black cocktail number stamped ‘quality press’ with long, black and well-cut hair; me, tabloid to my core, desperate to pass her on either side, ambition fixed solely on a waiting slab of white porcelain but denied further progress as she feinted almost imperceptibly, first to left and then to right to impede my flight.
I will not attempt to chronicle her side of the conversation that followed. I picked up only fragments as some thunderous dance number echoed around the fast-emptying dinner-dance area as those more fortunate, not fixed by the Sweet One’s glittering eye, headed either for the free bar or the Gents.
“Rude?” I asked. “In what way?”
From what I understood of the perfectly polite, even friendly exchange that followed, the Young Thing felt that I had been a little flip in my brief, unscripted remarks following my arrival on stage to present the Popular Journalism award half-an-hour earlier.
I struggled to recall the moment. I had left my table fifteen minutes earlier than was necessary and hobbled, walking stick in hand, to position myself at the side of the stage in order not to delay the moment when I would be called upon.
When summoned I had struggled unsteadily up two unrailed steps and joined Press Gazette editor-in-chief Dominic Ponsford at the rostrum, there entrusting him with my walking stick while I began to open the golden envelope wherein was contained the winner’s name, mumbling grumpily into the microphone as I did so:
“I told young Ponsford that getting an overweight, one-eyed former editor with knackered knees and a walking stick up two steps and across a stage was not a particularly sensible plan, but he waved aside my protest and told me that it would ‘illustrate Press Gazette’s commitment to diversity’.” That delivered, I duly delivered “And the winner is. . .” And thought no more of it.
Actually, no such conversation with Dominic had taken place. It was my idea of a joke. But it had obviously perturbed the young woman who accosted me.
She explained, with all seriousness, that diversity was not a subject about which to be flippant; that there might well be people at the event who suffered under the yoke of being different; and who had suffered intolerable consequences. At least, that’s what I think she said, competing as she was with Noddy Holder of Slade yelling “It’s Chr-I-I-I-I-stmas!”
I smiled, I thought apologetically, but her face stiffened and I realised she had thought I was about to be patronising. Nothing was further from my mind.
“I am different,” I said quietly and, pointing to my left eye, “In addition to being elderly, which can be a problem in itself, I am blind in this eye, meningitis left me with a poor sense of balance and I have arthritic knees, hence the walking stick.”
She was as undeterred as I would hope any journalist I ever employed would have been. “Still,” she insisted, “you should be more careful. It could be taken the wrong way.” At least, that’s what I think she said, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody permitting.
“Sorry,” I heard myself say, and immediately wondered why.
She smiled sweetly and, mission accomplished, bowed aside to let me pass. What followed, after a slow descent of stairs and a long corridor trek along the floor below, had rarely felt as sweet.
Five minutes later, back in a bar and Ubering up a cab, I surveyed the remaining group of (largely) elderly (mainly) males and decided that, needs be, this might have to be my final appearance at an awards dinner.
Diversity decrees journalism to be No Country for Old Men.