A DRINK WITH CHARLIE

We get to the pub just after eight. We’re only stopping for a quick half before having dinner with old friends. In my local’s upstairs room is a celebration party for a new friend who’s just won a city council byelection. It’s early, so there are less than a dozen people there. We’re sitting at a table with the new councillor, the local MP and his wife. The MP gets up to greet somebody.

I recognise the new arrival, although for a moment I can’t place him. An ex-county councillor, I think, someone I knew back when I was a party activist, twenty years ago. No, he’s too young. A university lecturer, maybe. He’s dressed in a somewhat bizarre combination of old jeans, pink shirt and scarlet blazer. I’m about to place him when John saves me the job by introducing ‘Charlie…’ followed by his surname and title.

So a moment later we’re having a drink with the country’s top law lord. I’m making conversation easing small talk (turns out Charlie only lives a few miles away). We quickly move on to discuss the byelection and the new Tory leader. Us blokes agree that Howard will play well in the Commons but not in the country. Sue argues that his grammar school boy made good versus privileged public schoolboy might play rather better than that, but Charlie doesn’t acknowledge her point.

It’s nearly time for us to go. I go and have a word with a couple of people I haven’t seen in years, then shake hands with the Lord Chancellor before we take our leave. I want to say that this encounter is ‘surreal’ but that would overstate the moment. It wasn’t a manufactured publicity moment (no media), just a mildly famous bloke in a place where you wouldn’t expect to see him.

What makes this memorable and (maybe) worth writing about here is to do with proximity to power. I’ll never have a better opportunity to discuss the issues that inhabit the novel I’m working on with somebody who can directly affect those issues. And did I use this chance? Of course not. They crossed my mind, but there was no way I could casually throw them into early evening pub conversation. The urge for justice is not as strong as the English urge for politeness.

Did I curse myself for the rest of the evening, replaying the short drink until I worked out a way to discuss asylum seekers, the history of government drugs policy or the need to update the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act? Nah. By the time we got to our old friends, only a couple of minutes late, the encounter had been transformed into a dinner party anecdote. And now this journal entry.

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