We were supposed to report to the Household Cavalry barracks in west London at 8.45 but didn't wake up, in south London, with a crucifying hangover, till nine. I'd been sick in the taxi on the way home, and when I went to put on my suit found that a good deal of it was still stuck to the left leg of my suit trousers. Which made us later still.
We'd been invited to a parade and lunch as a thank-you to The Spectator for sending free copies of the magazine to the regiment the last time they were in Bosnia. I knew it was always going to be a struggle getting to Hyde Park for 8.45. Really we shouldn't have stayed out so late and drank so much the night before. But as an ex-council worker with a long-term service medal, I'd judged that the Army and the town council were probably similar, in that getting there on time was the main thing. As long as we turned up at 8.45, everything else – my jeans, our taciturnity, our collapsing into the nearest chair – would be forgiven us.
On the council, as long as you clocked in at the depot on time, you could always climb into the nearest skip and go back to sleep. (In my entire career as a council worker I was late for work only once, after being arrested the night before for doing a smash and grab on an off-licence. And even then I saved up my statutory phone call to ring the council supervisor in the morning to tell him I might be a bit late.) If the worst came to the worst, and circumstances permitted it during the parade, I thought, we could always fall asleep behind our sunglasses and wake up, moderately refreshed, in time for a couple of pre-lunch hairs of the dog.
In the event, though, we were so unconscionably late that I panicked and lied to them. With my honking suit trousers draped over my arm, I rang up the guardroom and blamed our lateness on the railways. I was coming up from Devon by the early-morning train, I lied, and was badly delayed.
The parade was over by the time we got there. Far from being disgusted with us, however, as I was sure they would be, the officers couldn't have been more charming, solicitous and humorous about it. The guardroom had passed on my urgent telephone message to our host for the day, Major Adam 'Sid' Lawrence. Commiserating with my misfortune, Major Lawrence pressed me for details of my debacle at the hands of the railways as we shook hands. I am an unconvincing liar at the best of times. But lying barefaced to a man dressed in the full ceremonial uniform of the Household Cavalry, sword, helmet, plume, silver cuirass and all, while shaking his hand and having a sort of cerebral white-out, was particularly difficult. And of course in order to lend validity to the original falsehood, I had to tell more lies to other solicitous, courteous, gorgeously uniformed officers of the Queen, all the while trying to remember which version I had told to which officer. In a very short space of time you could have put an awful lot of diseased cows in the pit I'd managed to dig for myself.
We'd missed the parade, as I say, but were just in time to join a dozen other guests for the conducted tour of the stables. We saw black Irish draught horses glistening in their stalls. We saw patient drum horses, like hairy elephants, in theirs. We visited the forge and the tack-room and were shown a sort of outdoor tread-mill used for punishing any horses that fell sick. In spite of feeling terrible ourselves, we tried to look perky and fascinated. The trio of cavalry officers who took us around couldn't have been more informative, witty and obliging, so it was the least we could do. And we were getting away with it quite nicely, I thought, until my companion fainted in the saddlery. We were gathered round to watch a shirt-sleeved trooper stitching a leather strap when there was a sort of discreet commotion at the back and I saw her being assisted by Major Lawrence towards a convenient chair.
Well, I had to come clean after that, didn't I? They're not stupid those boys. (An Oxbridge degree in Classics, Philosophy or an Oriental language seemed to be about par for the course, as it turned out.) To my great relief, Major Lawrence was as forgiving about my telling him lies as he was about us being two hours late for the parade.
During the smoky, boozy lunch (the centrepiece of our table was a silver eagle's head, captured at Waterloo), our spirits revived, rallied and returned to the offensive. And the afternoon, if I've remembered it correctly, was one of those where the ladies get a bit carried away and try on the gentlemen's uniforms.