Monday, 9 April 2007

Memoirs of a Banquet Speaker

This is my favourite James Thurber piece. It is a description of an incident in which he is guest of honour at a banquet and has reluctantly agreed to give a short talk. He gets to the hotel where the function is to take place but realises that he has forgotten the name of the organisation which invited him, so walks into the first banqueting-room he comes to….

I found myself seated at a long table on a dais next to a lady who asks me if I understood the purpose and the make-up of the organisation we were about to address. I told her facetiously that I was under the impression that we were guests of the National Women’s Bulb-Raising Association. This caused the man on her right to pale slightly. He drank a little water and whispered that, on the contrary, we were at the annual dinner of the North-Eastern States Meat-Handlers Association. I could see, however, that he was uncertain of himself on that point; he kept twisting his napkin. After the coffee and ice cream he was called upon for the first speech of the evening and if ever a man touched lightly on the meat-handling situation he did. His nervous condition and incoherent remarks obviously upset the toastmaster, who, all we speakers were instantly aware, was not absolutely sure he was at the right banquet himself.

At this point, since I figured that several speakers were yet to come before I would be called, I slipped from the table and made a hasty trip to the lobby to look up the sign which tells where the various conventions are being held. Several were listed, and their locations were given merely as Ballroom A, Ballroom B, Second Assembly Hall, etc. It was impossible to identify these rooms in the short time at my disposal and so I simply hurried back to my seat. From the sign, however, I had discovered that I might be in the midst of the National Chassis-Builders Association, The Society for the Advancement of Electric Welding, The American Society of Syrup and Fondant Makers, or the Past Presidents and Active Officers of Ye Olde Record-binding Company.

As I sat in my chair, breathing heavily, I tried to think up a few words which might apply equally to the aims and purpose of all the various organisations. This got me nowhere at all. Nor did I receive any help from the gentleman who was talking at the moment. His expression was the agonised expression of a man who hasn’t the slightest idea what it is all about and wishes he were home. He told four stories, in a husky voice, and sat down.

The toastmaster now arose and said that we were now going to have the pleasure of listening to a man who knew more about the subject nearest our hearts than anyone else in America, a man whose great authority in this field has been recognised by his being selected to write on the subject for the new Encyclopaedia Britannica. Finally, with a sweep of his head, he pronounced the speaker’s name—“Mr Septimus R Groves”. As the toastmaster sat down, I lapsed back into my chair and applauded lightly. Nobody got up. All eyes then followed the toastmaster’s—and rested finally on me. I knew then that I was at the wrong banquet

Vaguely, as I got to my feet, I wondered where Mr Groves was and on what subject he was so eminent an authority. I was received with tremendous applause. When it quieted down I began to speak.

I sketched briefly the advance of transportation, the passing of riveting, the improvement shown in the handling and distribution of meats, chassis construction, electric welding and fondant manufacture, and the absolute reliance that one could place nowadays upon the binding of old records. In conclusion I left with my audience the thought that in meat-handling, as in bulb-raising , and binding old records, it is Service and Co-operation that count. The speech was received with thunderous applause and a little stomping.

It was not until I got into a taxi that I realized my mind was already beginning to go. The driver asked me where to. I was surprised to hear myself tell him the Pennsylvania Hotel. There I registered as “Septimus R. Groves” “We already have a Septimus R. Groves registered here,” said the clerk, with polite interest. “What’s his name?” I asked. “Septimus R. Groves,” he said. “He’s attending the annual banquet of the Fish and Game Wardens”.

“Oh,” I said, “there must be some mistake; the man you’re thinking of is Horace R. Morgner—gypsum blocks and building laths.” The clerk gave me my room key, albeit with a certain reluctance. It was a week before I went home. I don’t mutter any longer, but I still cry out in my sleep.

[from James Thurber: Collecting Himself. ©Michael Rosen and Rosemary Thurber]

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