Up to a short time ago I believed I could fudge my way through a conversation on any topic with the exception of nuclear fission and horse racing. A superficial knowledge gleaned from newspapers and books enabled me to keep the pot boiling, so to speak, and even on subjects such as cooking - I am a notorious hotter-up of fish fingers - I could hold my own simply by using a little imagination. ''A drop of vanilla essence works wonders,'' I would say, regardless of whether I was being consulted on how to make artichoke soup or Haddock Mornay. Then I would skillfully steer the conversation into another channel more to my liking.
Recently, however, the advent of all these silicon chips and computers, these videos and electronic eyes, etc., has placed great reefs across my verbal flow, and these have to be avoided at all costs if I want to talk at all. Before, even when faced with dreaded racing, even if I had no idea what horse had won the Kentucky Derby, at any rate I knew what a horse looked like. Once, long ago, I had even given one a lump of sugar. But confronted with a silicon chip, what can I say? Nothing. I just have to listen while someone tries to explain, in words of one syllable and pushing the salt cellars and pepper pots about the table as he does so. This is not my idea of conversation.
That we are now living in an age of specialists is apparent at every turn, and I have now accepted the fact that I soon won't understand anything that anybody says to me. I had hopes, however, of encountering now and then a few old-fashioned nonspecialist types with whom I could converse in my usual superficial fashion, skimming merrily over the surface of art and books and the theater, not to mention housekeeping, travel, and the family. On all these topics I have learned, over the years, to sparkle quite delightfully, throwing in a Braque here and a Petra there, an apocryphal story about President Nixon, and a joke about my aunt.
The other day, however, I came into the orbit of a friend of a friend who, on appearance, looked as though she were ripe to talk with me on the price of eggs or the pros and cons of playing the Brandenburg Concertos as Bach meant them to be played. I could have sworn she had never computed a thing in her life. I was right. What she had done, however, was to collect stamps. I soon realized that philately is another subject that demands accuracy rather than a jolly flow of cliches culled from the newspapers or from half listening to one's friends.
Faced with this ardent collector I could only think of the ''penny black,'' and our conversation soon foundered. I just managed to comment on the puny ration of adhesive allocated to modern stamps, and then, after a long silence, we resorted to the weather. This, in England, is a topic to suit every taste, and can, thank heaven, never be exhausted.