Conversations which take a wrong turn

Between marriages (this is not a legal term), I lived in a strange but amenable flat, which meant that, for the first time in about two decades, I had neighbours above and below me – although the neighbour below was only there for about six months of the year, his main home being in Cairo, and Exeter being the city he and his wife had taken a fancy to as the place where he could hide from heat, and where they could relax. They were charming people. She was the grand-daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm’s gardener, and he had been a junior officer under Nasser, and a government official of some seniority under Sadat – who, you may recall, was assassinated by machine-gun at a parade he was watching. In the mornings he smoked cigars and watched television.

I knew a bit – that’s the problem with my knowledge, it’s in bits – about Egyptian political history. I thought I would attempt to increase the bit by a crumb or two, if a crumb can be said to cohere with a bit. We got into a long, rambling conversation, fuelled by tea, in which I had a stab at Suez and everything after it. My friend had a kindly attitude to everything (he was especially charming to my young daughter, whom he greeted like a lost grandchild, and for whom he had a discreet supply of sweets). Our conversation rattled away along a single, agreeable track – it was a conversation in which we were in complete harmony. It felt particularly good to be taking part in it.

We reached the subject of Sadat, at which point a certain gravity entered his voice, and, as we put the world – well, the Middle East – to rights, he leaned across and said, ‘Trouble with Sadat was torture.’ Now this is not a difficult thing to agree with, especially if you are a soft-centred liberal, and of course my face must have shown it by smiling, and my head must have nodded in absolute agreement.

Unfortunately, I had given my assent when he was halfway through a sentence, and the sentence, in its complete form, went like this: ‘Trouble with Sadat was torture – he banned it.’ Suddenly, sitting on his pleasant sofa, drinking his pleasant tea, and nodding pleasantly along to the rhythm of the conversation (and you don’t stop nodding just like that, or you’d do your neck some damage), I realised that I was assenting – had assented, I was far too late to retract it, to the idea that it was folly to abandon the practice of torturing your opponents.

I don’t know what happened next. I suspect I changed the subject, or remembered a pressing engagement (what am I talking about? I have never had a ‘pressing engagement’ in my life! What century am I living in?) But it’s always struck me as a good example of how the mood of a conversation can deprive it of all meaning.

To be truthful, there had been one earlier example of my being cloth-eared in this respect, and it had had happened when I was about eighteen, and had been introduced to a man called Norman, who was my mother’s cousin (I had in fact introduced him to my mother, but that’s a different story). I was determined to get on with him. After all, he was related. We exchanged views on a whole host of opinions, one after another, very rapidly, agreeing with one another in a communal and cousinly way. At the end of our chat, he added, casually, ‘And that’s why I vote National Front.’ What? What? Still smiling, I raced my brain back through the words which I’d come out with for the previous ten minutes. But I had lost them.

So, twice in my life, I have assented where I should have dissented, to torture, to racism. Politeness is a terrible defect when it wants to be.

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