Talking about TS Eliot. It reminds me of the time back in the early ‘60s when I went to the Edinburgh Festival with my friend from drama school, Bob Prior-Pitt. Well, one day we decided to climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat and who should be up there all by himself but the famous actor Paul Rogers. And after we’d chatted about drama school a bit, he said, why don’t you have seats tonight for the play I’m in at the festival. A play by TS Eliot called The Elder Statesman. So we saw the play and went backstage afterwards and this man came into the dressing room who looked like a successful grocer; dark suit with a waistcoat. Anyway, Paul introduces us and it was TS Eliot himself. I stammered something about liking his poems and he said “Please don’t call me Mr Eliot. Call me Tom.” TS Eliot. TS Bloody Eliot! Tom. What do you think of that?

Martin Rowson's cartoon of Laurie Taylor for New Humanist May/June 2007Not much. Not much at all. Most of my drinking friends around the table were already showing considerably more interest in their beer mats than in the news of my meeting with a famous poet. It was further evidence of my recent fall from grace. For the best part of the last 50 years I’ve been regarded as someone who, after four pints of bitter and a couple of large whiskies, can be counted upon to add to the general jollity of even the most unpromising social situation with some great name-dropping stories and anecdotes. I’m used to being told the morning after the night before that I’d been in “fine form”, that I’d been quite the life and soul of the party.

Not any more. Even though I’ve rather heroically kept my alcohol intake at almost the same spot in the red-for-danger quadrant of the BMA’s recommended daily intake chart, I’ve gradually come to realise that I’m no fun any more. I’ve become a party pooper. What a state you were in last night, they now say. What got into you?

At first I thought I might be the subject of a nasty outbreak of ageism. In defiance of Ronnie Scott’s injunction that the only way to keep looking young is to hang around with older people, I spend most of my time drinking with people half my age who take great pride in their ability to knock back six pints of lager and yet still find their own way to the Caballeros. Were they now finding it intolerable that their input was being comfortably matched by a white-haired wrinkly who’d normally be spotted turning down a second Pina Colada on a Saga sun break?

But I’ve now collected a sufficiently large sample of opinions to make me realise that there is another far more straightforward reason for my fall from drunken favour. I repeat my anecdotes. Repeat and repeat and repeat. I repeat the story about the time I toured North Wales in the back of George Melly’s battle bus. I repeat the story about the weekend I got lost on Mont St Victoire with John Birt. I repeat the story about the day I was marooned on a Turkish island with Mo Mowlam.

Since I became aware of the problem I’ve made a real mental effort to check the novelty of any story well before setting sail. But it doesn’t work.

Alcohol somehow seems to have insinuated itself into the part of my brain which controls the repetition function. I’ve simply no idea, when I start a story about how I once met TS Eliot in Edinburgh and how he took me to one side and asked me to call him “Tom”, whether or not I last told it a month, a week, a day, or even five paragraphs ago. Nothing clicks in my head. I’m stuck on repeat.

“It must be a sort of amnesia,” said Tom Baker solicitously when we ran into each other a few months ago. “You should count yourself lucky. There are even worse forms. Since I’ve been back on the television I can’t move a yard without people claiming to have met me before. Only the other day a middle-aged woman stopped me in the Strand and fixed me with a look that even from a hundred yards would have been counted as familiar.”

“Tom. Dear Tom,” she said. “How are you?” Tom did his level best. “Gosh,” he said, “all those days together at Pitlochry Rep. What was that awful play?” “No, Tom,” she said, “it wasn’t Pitlochry Rep.” “Silly of me,” said Tom. “Ah yes, it’s coming back. You must have been at the Yvonne Arnaud. The Doll’s House or was it The Importance?” “No, Tom,” she said again, this time with black cap finality, “neither of those.” “In that case,” said Tom, putting on his biggest time-lord smile, “you have the better of me. Where did we meet?” “Tom,” she said, with a despairing intimacy, “we used to be married.”

A good story, isn’t it? Very funny, I’d say. In fact two nights ago in the George, it had only one serious competitor for my friends’ attention. A set of beer mats. ■