Blushes at Midnight                                                                                                                                    1st June  2013

I’m living in Paris.  Boulevard Haussmann.  It’s an attic flat, cold as a step-mother’s breath, but ideal for sitting staring at the wall and convincing yourself you’re writing a novel.  The food’s not great, since I can’t afford to eat out often and, as a cook, I could have done the Borgias a few favours.  But this night I’m invited to the home of the man who arranged for me to have this flat.  He has told me there will be a couple of serious guests at this dinner-party.  He himself is a film critic and his attractive partner, the hostess, is something important in the media.  The other two people besides myself are a female television journalist and her friend, a highly-rated French novelist.

Before we get past the aperitifs, I realise that this could be a migraine night.  I can sometimes get by in conversational French, especially if people talk in slow motion and there’s somebody there to draw the pictures.  But this is pretty high-powered stuff.

By the time I’ve twigged that they’re discussing Indo China, they’re not.  I think they’ve moved to somewhere near Quebec.  I hear the name of Albert Camus mentioned.  I’ve just sculpted what I think are two perfectly shaped sentences about Camus in my head when somebody keeps mentioning Mitterrand and I can’t quite grasp the connection.  I’m desperate to throw something into the conversation but this is like catching individual snowflakes and trying to make a snowball.  By the time you’ve got the second one, the first one’s melted.

I’m reduced to a kind of clumsy, conversational breenging in my attempt to relate to something before it isn’t there.  So when the novelist says, rather pompously I feel, “I wrote 5000 words today,” I find myself coming back at him, quick as a flash, “But were they good words?”  It’s only once the sentence is there in the air between us that I realise it’s travelling towards him like a dart.  This is frustrating and frustration makes me tetchy.  I’m slowly turning into Marcel Marceau.  I’m miming ideas.  Instead of trying to hold the thread of the conversation and to work out clever things to say, I find myself thinking thoughts I’m lucky I don’t have the opportunity to voice, such as: that novelist has a nose roughly the size of a small state – say, San Marino.

I love argument and I can see a whole fascinating conversation shimmering just ahead of me but I can’t reach it.  I feel like the boy with the limp who couldn’t keep up with the Pied Piper.

During the meal, the hostess hands me the second bottle of wine and a weird-looking object such as I’ve never seen before.  I deduce it must be a plastic corkscrew.  “Weelyam,” she says, “s’il vous plait?”

Maybe she wants to make me feel more a part of proceedings or maybe she just thinks I might as well do something with my evening.  Either way, she has made a serious error.

I wind the metal of the corkscrew firmly into the cork.  I sense immediately that this will not be an easy wine to set free.  Chateau Bastille.  I make to set it on the floor between my knees, then realise that bending over like this will probably put my hair among my food.  I raise the bottle on to my knees.  While the others talk on among themselves, the wine and I are fighting to the death beneath the table-cover.  In frustration, I raise the bottle towards my chest. The dignity of Scotland is in my hands.  Victorious at Bannockburn and defeated by a cork?  I bring all my power to bear upon the corkscrew.  The plastic suddenly disintegrates and one long sharp fragment is hurled like a spear to hit the nose of the novelist.  I am left holding in plain view a bottle the cork of which hasn’t moved a millimetre but from which there now protrudes a small, curly and completely useless piece of metal.

Collapse of foreign party, not to mention dinner party.

I blame my shyness.  As a teenager I was criminally shy, often exuding an obtrusive silence that embarrassed other people.  I sometimes caught them glancing at me furtively, perhaps wondering if I’d had a stroke.  I worked at overcoming it, of course, and succeeded pretty well but something like that never quite goes away, as far as I can see.  You’re going along fine for a long time and then suddenly you’ve walked into a time-lock and the awkward bugger you used to be is squirming inside you again.  It usually happens when you find yourself trapped in a really awkward situation, like that time in Paris.

The result is that I have a reasonable store of those cringe-provoking flashbacks that often surface in the insomniac dark and bring blushes at midnight.  They’re the residue of times when I had to heighten my determination to such a pitch that I would burst into a situation like a bull to the bullring, head swivelling ready to challenge all-comers.

In spite of all that, I think I’m glad I used to be shy.  In an essay written in defence of shyness – that continuing state of having the potential to be embarrassed – Harold Nicholson made the point, I think, that shy people are shy because they are working out a fuller and more complicated sense of themselves which they will grow into.  I think there’s something in that.  Somewhere in that tortured process there evolves the difference between character and personality.  Character is not what you’re allowed.  It’s what you earn for yourself.  It emerges from coming to terms with – often subversively – the false limits society wants to set, not by never noticing they were there in the first place.  Instant maturity petrifies growth.  Someone who is a sophisticate in his or her teens is quite likely to be full of shallow, untested assumptions at thirty.

This is what gives me concern for some contemporary teenagers.  Many of the young today seem to have acquired, by some strange, cultural Darwinian progression, the genetic predisposition to be born with brass necks.  What does it take to embarrass them?  These days, if you catch a young person out in some unsavoury activity or other and they go red, they’re probably not blushing.  They’re more likely to be suffused with outrage that you should dare to challenge them in the first place.  They won’t stammer an apology.  They’re more likely to rant out half-a-dozen completely spurious justifications with all the phoney passion of a shady lawyer who knows his case is crap and is trying to intimidate the jury.

No doubt there are those who see this as progress – especially in these times when instant self-fulfilment is seen not only as everybody’s birthright but also something easily acquired, probably by correspondence course.  I don’t think so.  I think the easily embarrassed, the chronically shy and the broodingly introverted are undervalued in our noisy, self-promoting society.

But there’s not much we can do about it.  In a culture of rigidly Balkanised protest, where every crackpot schism demands public attention and sometimes even public funding, the shy are ill-equipped to plead their case.  The idea of a protest march of introverts doesn’t augur well: timing the demonstration for two in the morning; planning a route down side-streets and over derelict sites in case they attract too much attention; shuffling in step with their heads lowered; muttering to one another, ‘Do you think anybody’s seen us?’; all whispering in unison, ‘What do we want? We’ll tell you one-to-one sometime’; printing banners that read SORRY and BREAK COLUMN IF DESIRED.