‘Why are you so quiet?’
There are two main reasons for my veneer of silence. The first is a matter of principle; volume implies conviction. If I don’t know the answer to a question, then I can’t justify a verbal response. This isn’t limited to an academic context; if I don’t know where you left the car keys, I won’t reply. Sooner or later the architect of the question will check down the back of the sofa. They’ll find the missing car keys, £2.19 in small change and three different breeds of paperclip.
The second reason is more straightforward. My attempts at casual conversation elicit a slow-motion descent into failure usually reserved for attempts to make Gordon Brown smile ‘naturally’.
I get off to a sound start.
How are you? Lovely weather. I like your shoes.
The conversation stalls. It’s my turn to speak. All the safe topics have been covered. I need to venture further offshore, to say something interesting.
It’s legal to duel to the death in Paraguay, provided both parties are registered blood donors.
They stare at me. Head slowly tilts to one side, expression a mixture of contempt and confusion.
A lifeline! An ‘Operation Top Kill’ to my Deepwater Horizon, they’ve given me a chance at retribution. Think. What do people normally talk about? The weather? Already covered it. Politics! That’s always relevant, isn’t it? I’ll ask them a question, let them guide the conversation.
Do you think Boris Johnson or Nick Clegg would fetch a higher price at ransom?
I look up at them hopefully. They sigh. My attempt to seal the breach has failed. Embarrassment is rushing into the room at the rate of 5000 barrels per day. I’ve accidentally marinated the pelicans of convention.
Like Tony Hayward, I decide it would be best to leave the scene of the crime. I walk away, my shoulders heavy under the weight of an over-extended metaphor.