A LONDON DINNER PARTYCategory: Politics
The light above Big Ben shone beneath the cloud-cap: the House was sitting.
We walked in the direction of Whitehall. Across Parliament Square, in the Treasury building, another light was shining. A room lit up on the third storey someone working late.
There was nothing special about the evening, either for my wife or me. We had dined with the Quaifes several times before. Roger Quaife was a youngish Conservative member who was beginning to be talked about. I had met him through one of my official jobs, and thought him an interesting man. It was the kind of friendly acquaintanceship, no more than that, which we all picked up, officials, politicians of both parties: not meeting often, but enough to make us feel at- home in what they sometimes called ’this part of London.”
Prompt to the last stroke of eight, we were back in Lord North Street. A maid took us upstairs to the drawing-room, bright with chandeliers, drink-trays, the dinner-shirts of the two men already standing there, the necklace of Caro Quaife glittering as she took our hands.
“I expect you know everyone, don’t you?” she said. “Of course you do!”
Other people had followed us up. They all knew one another. There appeared to be three couples, all the men Tory backbenchers none of them older than forty, with wives to match.
As we sat down and drank, Roger Quaife not yet present, they were all talking politics but politics which any outsider—even one as near to it as I was — needed a glossary to follow. This was House of Commons gossip, as esoteric as theatre-gossip, as continuously enthralling to them as ,,theatre-gossip was -to actors. Who was in favour who wasn’t. Who was going to finish up the debate next week.
There was going to be an election soon, we all knew: this was the spring of 1955. They were swapping promises to speak for one another: one was bragging how two senior Ministers were “in the bag” to speak for him. Roger was safe, someone said, he’d gie a hand. What had the MP got in mind for Roger “when we come back!” Monty Cave asked Caro. She shook her head, but she was pleased, and I thought she was touching wood.
The other men spoke of Roger as though he were the only one of them whose success was coming soon, or as though he were different from themselves. The gossip went on. The euphoria grew. Then the maid came in and announced, “Lady Caroline, Dr Rubin is here.”
It was not that Roger Quaife had a title—but his wife was the daughter of an earl, one of a rich aristocratic family who in the nineteenth century had been Whig grandees.
I looked round, as Caro stood up with cries of welcome. I was taken aback. Yes, it was the David Rubin I knew very well, the American psysicist.
Caro Quaife took him to my wife’s side. By this time the drawing-room was filling up, and Caro trew a cushion on the floor and sat by me-
“Here he is!” she said. “And about time too!”
As Roger walked through the room from an inner door, he looked clumsy, a little comic, quite unselfconscious. He was a big man, heavy and strong; but neither his face nor his body seemed all of a piece. His head was smallish, for a man of his bulk, and well-shaped, his eyes grey and bright, pulled down a little at the outer corners. His nose was flattened at the bridge, his lower lip receded. It was not a handsome face, but it was pleasant. His colleagues in the room, except for Cave, were neat, organized, officer- like; by their side he was shambling and uncoordinated. When I first met him, he had brought back my impression of Pierre Bezu- khov in War and Peace. Yet his manner, quite unlike Pierre’s, was briskly competent.
“I’m so sorry/’ he said to his wife, “someone caught me on the ‘phone — ”
It was, it appeared, one of his constituents. He said it simply, as if it were a matter of tactics that she would understand.
For the first that evening, David Rubin began to take a part. “Mr Quaife, I’d like to ask you something,” he said. “Wbat, according to present thinking, is the result of this election going to be? Or is that asking you to stick your neck out?”
“It’s fair enough,” said Roger. ‘Til give you the limits. On one side, the worst that can happen to us (he meant the Conservative Party) is a stalemate. It can’t be worse thn that. At the other end, if we’re lucky we might have a minor landslide.”
Rubin nodded. One of the members said: “I’m betting on a. hundred majority.”
“I’d judge a good deal less,” said Roger.
He was speaking like a real professional, I thought. But it was just afterwards that my attention sharpened. My neighbour’s cigar smoke was spiralling round the candle-flame: it might have been any well-to-do London party, the men alone for another quarter of an hour.
… Just as Roger was holding open the door, bells began to ring in the passage, up the stairs, in the room we were leaving. It was something like being on board ship, with the bells ringing for life- boat-drill. Immediately Roger, who a minute before had seemed dignified — more than that, formidable — took on a sheepish smile. “Division bell,” he explained to David Rubin, still wearing the smile, ashamed, curiously boyish, and at the same time gratified which comes on men when they are taking part in a collective private ritual. “We shan’t be long!” The members ran out of the house, like schoolboys frightened of being 1а1ел-while David and I went upstairs alone.
(From Corridors of Power by C. P. Snow)