Tuesday, 10 July 2007

London Visit: The Black Tie Do and the BA Lounge

I had an eventful couple of days last week on my first trip down to London since September 2003 (and my first flight since a festive shindig in Belfast in December 2005).

Anyhow, despite my advanced years (43 in September) it was also my first ever 'black tie' do. I've only ever been to rather informal weddings and wedding receptions where the suits are up to you and completely diverse. Equally the expensive 'tradition' of high school proms recently adopted from America was well after my time.

Adding to the pressure this was a works do with our head office (hence London ...or Harrow more specifically) and held in a military mess, with attendant etiquette. It was also a Grade II listed building with amazing lansdcaped gardens (see mobile phone picture above) complete with working fountains!

Since I'd first accepted the RSVP last month I'd researched what exactly "black tie" entailed, and what it didn't. It's basically a black tuxedo with a black bow-tie of some description. You can also wear either a cummerbund OR a waistcoat but not both. I also researched how much the costume hire would be, weighing up whether to pick it up here or in London on the day. Having baulked at the costs, I was also being encouraged by some folks on the Digital Spy forums to wear formal 'Highland' outfit as an acceptable alternative. I'd never kilted it before either but the hire costs were much more bearable and extra attention was guaranteed.

About a week later though my boss (who was also going) mentioned a follow-up email that she'd had and deleted which somehow relaxed the dress code to include lounge (i.e. normal) suits as long as they were dark grey or black. So I sighed with some relief that I could just wear the plain suit I wear when I need to, matched with a black silk tie, though I also felt slightly cheated of the opportunity to dress up, even at cost.

Alas I never actually saw this email or had the contents confirmed. On the night I was the only one in a lounge suit ! Luckily no-one made anything of it except me, and I didn't stand out as much as the two who came wearing white tuxedoes which I'd already discovered were also not considered 'black tie'. And I didn't get the James Bond jibes all night (though 'The Blues Brothers" was referenced to a group of us). Equally, had I gone for the kilted option I'd also have been alone in doing so. We had group photos done on the grand 3-sided staircase and I made sure my faux-pas was not too apparent in the shot.

With a glass of champagne on arrival and the waiting staff attentively refilling your glass at the slightest opportunity I was soon fairly relaxed about it and started some proper mingling. We had a formal seating plan for the 3 course silver service dinner, amazingly managing a boy-girl alternation throughout. Luckily I'd unexpectedly been involved in completing the document when I made a surprise trip to our head office itself that afternoon so I'd had sight of it and knew 'who' to expect. I was bamboozled though by the rule that I had to escort the lady on my right into dinner, not because of my inclinations but because I was at the table end and had no-one on my right and a man opposite! Answers on a postcard please as to what the solution to that etiquette puzzle is.

I thought I'd be irritated or intimidated by the rules and regulations and conventions of the mess (saying grace, standing to toast the Queen etc) but I took it as a bit of fun, and oddly that seemed to be the idea. Certainly the bizarre practice of having to pass the port in one direction was enjoyably surreal. And after the main course all us gents had to move '2 gents' to our right while the ladies stayed put which I can see is a good way to mix things up and meet new people in principle.In practice though I was still with more familiar faces, including my boss. Thankfully the rule about not going to the toilet during the meal was ignored. There's something vaguely sadistic or certainly 'challenging' about an event that routinely fills you to bursting with alcohol then obliges you hold it in for a period of hours.

The food was first class too. Basically a smoked salmon starter, beef main and summer fruit dessert. I wanted to nick a menu as a souvenir but forgot. Probably related to the fact that we apparently retired to the bar until 3am (even though the bar closed at 1am). Even when we were paying by this point a glass of wine was £1.20 and a G&T even less! Thankfully I was on a day off on the Friday.

There's talk of this event becoming at least an annual fixture for us and I hope it does. This time I'll be ready with the proper attire. The idea of me doing a week's secondment in the London office also came up, again something I'd be keen to do as I was comfortable during my afternoon visit. Then again I did work down there for over 10 years (December 1987-February 1999), so not overly surprising.

I had a spare few hours to wander on Friday, catching up on normal London bar prices these days. I decided not to linger overlong in Central London though a large (250ml) white wine in a Holborn Wetherspoons was a not unreasonable £3.60. Foolishly I decided to break my tube journey back to Heathrow and revisit an old haunt, The New Inn, in South Ealing. It had completely lost the feel it had in the days when I was a regular in the West London Doctor Who Group of the late 80s and the same measure of wine there was a round and cheeky £5! So much for nostalgia and suburban pricing.

However, I had an ace up my sleeve. While on my journey down at Edinburgh Airport on the Thursday my boss texted me to say that if my flight ticket had 'BA BUSINESS' marked on it - which it had - I was entitled to use the BA lounge. She texted me too late as the last call for my flight was just being called and I didn't have time to locate it even. I was of the impression that this was just some posey place with sofas and stacks of in-flight magazines so I wasn't too miffed about missing a visit. However, I happened to have arranged a meet-up with my lovely ex Nigel on Friday lunchtime. To call him well travelled is a considerate understatement and he was off for another QE2 cruise that weekend. He explained to me that the BA lounge was stuffed with unlimited free booze, net access, food, newspapers etc etc and I should make the best of it. Actually, although I arranged for an earlier flight than booked when I arrived at Heathrow, once I arrived in the lounge this new flight was delayed by an hour and 10 minutes so I did get to have a decent carouse in there. One slight dampener was that the internet terminals there had blocked this very site on the grounds of 'pornography'. As if!

Needless to say I'll be on the prowl for more business flights down. A bit disappointed no-one told me sooner.

On a related point I think I may also take advantage of the airport option next month for purchase of the long-awaited MacBook as it is £706.37 in the Duty Free shop as opposed to £829ish normally. The difference is greater than the air-fare which would have just been by train otherwise.

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