flora for the judge

Amy’s place is different every time I go there. It started as an opium den without opium – or at any rate a place where opium was only for those for whom kefir didn’t altogether do the trick. Then it became a place of more general resort. There was a bar – after a fashion. There were divans with cushions. Then food became available. When you enter through the very discrete front door you are greeted by the aroma of green tea and of Chinese and Japanese delicacies. There is nothing however so vulgar as a menu. In the front room, you can usually depend on meeting people you know and spending an agreeable half hour with them, and then there are the back rooms for more recondite pleasures, like the private rooms of a New Orleans brothel or the library of a Pall Mall club.

There is no name over the door. In one window, facing the street, there is a portrait of Amy’s provisional head of state against a red, white and blue background. It will remain there at least until the Olympics are over. Inside is a rather bigger photographic portrait of His Highness Sultan Qaboos of Oman, benevolently fingering his khanjar. That was a gift from me.

You can get anything you want, at Amy’s restaurant.

Excepting Amy, quoted the dog, showing off.

After a rocky start, things were looking up. Late one night, however, she telephoned me. I was to go straight round. It concerned the Court of Appeal judge, and Amy, who is never entirely unsettled, was clearly far from settled.

This, as will be seen shortly, is probably the man’s last appearance in these chronicles, and he deserves more than the generic description – ‘the Court of Appeal judge’ – that he has received to date. Unfortunately however the circumstances are far too delicate to admit of his being named. Professionally he would be described as ‘Lord Justice’ – followed by his surname. He was not acting professionally at the time though, so he would properly be known in this context as Sir J- K- (as it might be), having been knighted when he became a High Court judge and not yet made (indeed, as we shall see shortly, never to be made) a life peer, as would normally be appropriate on his acceding in the fullness of time to the Supreme Court. I shall call him Sir J-, like a provincial town in the stories of Chekhov.

Anyway, he was dead. Amy tried to prepare me with ineffective circumlocutions but I went straight through to the private room and the position was beyond doubt.

A stroke?

He choke on he own kefir.

That much could be seen. The man’s face was such as I hope never to see again, his slight body distorted with horror, his tweeds awry. The intestinal flora had got him in the end.

He can’t be found here, I said. Not just for your sake, Amy, but his family’s. We have to get him away.

How? she said. Who can help us? Aubergine Small he at sea. On Jolly Thought.

I hadn’t, I admit, thought of Aubergine Small. Brute strength was not required, but we had to get the man unseen through the streets of London to a place suitable to leave him. I had a brainwave. I called the Jibjab Woman on her mobile and fortunately she picked up.

Come at once. Amy needs you. Bring spare jibjabs.

What a star she is! She soon arrived, took in the scene with a shudder and got straight to work: off with the tweeds and on with the jibjab.

You too, Amy, I directed.

There being a fourth jibjab, I also put it on, and there we were, although mine was a little small for me, to all appearances four modest Moslem women about to go shopping; one of us increasingly less pliant than the others.

We were convincing enough, but no likely match for a London cabbie. It was then that I had my second brainwave. Our friend M, it may be recalled, does not trust public transport, and always uses a contract driver. This man – let us call him Igor – speaks no English, lacks basic familiarity with the geography of London and is of unparalleled venality. So I called him.

He’ll never tell about us. He probably won’t even notice.

There was of course a delay while Igor found us and another as he manoeuvred the Bentley down the street, which had been designed only to take two lanes of traffic. I think that he found my accent confusing – probably it was the falsetto – but I’m confident that he never guessed that I was English. I directed him, in Russian, to take us to Sir J-‘s country place, the address of which, in Hampshire, I had located, using Google.

Sir J- would be discovered, re-tweeded, among his familiar shrubs and gazebos, having passed away unexpectedly but peacefully.

We fairly bowled along. Once we hit the main roads out of London it was a smooth ride. I was very tired and I confess that I dropped off. So I believe did Amy, for whom it had been a trying day, and the Jibjab Woman must have slept as well.

I awoke too late. We were not at Sir J-‘s country seat, we were at Farnborough Airport.

Gompshire! Gompshire! shouted Igor.

Too late I realised that ‘Hampshire’ meant only one thing to him: the private airport that delivered his clients to him and bore them away again.

Across the field a Lear Jet was taking off.

She very stiff; she go at Novosibirsk, said Igor, lapsing unexpectedly into English.

It wasn’t at all what I had intended, but perhaps it was for the best. There would be puzzlement in England about Sir J-‘s disappearance but the arrival in Novosibirsk of a dead English judge dressed as a modest Moslem woman would probably go unremarked. A contract killing, they would no doubt conclude, and leave it at that.

Anyway there was no more that we could do.

The stress lifted, Amy, the Jibjab Woman and I were suddenly attacked by giggles.

I thought, These jibjabs are too good to waste.

Harrods, my man, I said to Igor in my most authoritative falsetto voice. And step on it.

I was confident that although shaky on central London and fundamentally confused as regards Hampshire, Igor would know how to find Harrods.


Some questions about hats

Next week we are going to Dubai and Oman. So, to Lock’s in St James’s to buy suitable headgear. It is essential to find something elegant to keep the strong Arabian sun off my nose. Fortunately Lock’s have something summery even though the autumn is on us. It probably comes from catering for the Empire in times gone by. Having made my selection I notice a selection of beautiful embroidered velvet caps with tassels. I ask the gentleman where they might be worn.

Not in Dubai or Oman, he says. There is an element of pastiche about them that the local people might find offensive.

What about an opium den in London, I ask.

The very thing, he says.

Before I can pay there is a drama. An America couple are in front of me. They have contrived to enter into the card machine a sum that is exactly 1% of what they owe. I thought that that was impossible but they have managed it. They demand to know the balance. A calculator is called for from the nether regions of the shop. The balance is calculated, recalculated, checked and agreed on. The card goes through again.

But which receipt will we have to produce if we want to return the hats, they wail.


Finally they stumble out onto the street. Panic creeps into the voice of the man and he reaches for his mobile phone. We’re on the sidewalk, he cries.

But the contract driver is nowhere to be seen.


Later in the day we went to the private view at The Annely Juda Gallery of two new shows, one of work by Francois Morellet based on Malevich’s black square paintings, and the other sculpture and drawings by Katsura Funakoshi. We went partly because we love the seriousness and effortless style of the Juda gallery, partly because it is nice to see a Malevich black square that isn’t in captivity and partly because we once spent an excellent holiday in a hotel owned and run by Francois Morellet’s son.

Indeed Malevich / Morellet is well worth seeing. There is a little Malevich black square. The passing years have qualified its impenetrable blackness, just as they have some of Mondrian’s flat areas of colour – and that’s good. There are also some drawings of the sort that it’s fascinating to see the master at work, but you wonder how fascinating they would be if you didn’t know that it was the master at work. The pieces by Francois Morellet are very shiny and new and therefore still impeccably impenetrable – and that’s also good.

We didn’t go with any expectations of the work by Katsura Funakoshi, but it is stunning. The sculpture is accompanied by preparatory drawings. Indeed in the drawings you can see ideas being tried out and sometimes discarded. The sculpture consists entirely of human figures, carved in camphor wood. The wood retains a faint smell of camphor, although very faint when competing with the confidently-perfumed private viewers. The figures are hieratic, intensely thoughtful, sometimes actually described as sphinxes. Sometimes they are male, sometimes female, sometimes both. Some of them have attributes attached to their shoulders: a building, a helping hand, an okapi.

(An okapi is a solitary, forest-dwelling member of the giraffe family, according to the BBC. It has a dark velvety coat, white stripes on its rump and legs and large ears. Funakoshi-san, when we spoke to him, stressed that the animal was solitary. Sometimes in his work it achieves a horn like a unicorn.)

I thought of the line from Hey Jude: “The movement you need is on your shoulder”. John Lennon’s only contribution to the song is said to have been to insist that Paul McCartney keep the line, notwithstanding its total opacity. Looking at these grave figures with helping hands and tutelary beasts attached to their shoulders, it makes sense at last.

As much as anything the figures resemble Madonnas, or saints bearing the signs of their deaths or of the means by which they help those for whom they intercede. Funakoshi-san referred to a painting of Christ’s scourging, by one of the early Italian masters. Christ stood impassive; the spitting was indicated by an insert depicting a mouth; the beating by a hand.

The work is profound, serious and moving. When we left and struck out for Chinatown to eat, we passed another private view, showing Chinese paintings, colourful and featuring the inevitable satirical portraits of Mao. They tried to entice us in. It was unthinkable, so soon after having seen the real thing.

contract drivers and wagner

M flew back to Russia yesterday morning.  There was great drama.  The flight was at 9.30 and at 7.40 the driver, who was supposed to pick her up with the limo at 6.45, was still apparently asleep.  They got there in the nick of time, no doubt at the expense of stress, exertion and – the worst thing – running in front of strangers.  Why do people put themselves through this?  Is it a sense of duty?  She could have been anxiety-free in a lovely black cab or even better the Heathrow Express, even if she baulked at the friendly dark-blue Piccadilly Line.

Professor David Daube of Oxford and Berkeley Universities, who taught me Roman Law, used to say that it was from collective guilt that the upper classes in ancient Rome would expose a selection of their children to death on mountain tops from sun, rain and wild beasts.  He drew parallels with the predilection of the English upper classes to exposing their children to the public school system.  Maybe these days the comfortably-off assuage feelings of guilt by submitting to the unreliability, venality and occasional criminality of contract drivers.

Actually it’s not just drivers.  Years ago I was required to fly somewhere in Europe with a suspicious-looking but obviously prosperous solicitor, who was acting for a proto-oligarch.  I said that I would meet him at the gate.  Half an hour spent reading a book on the Tube to Heathrow would be a welcome break in the working week.

He brushed this aside.  No, he said, I will pick you up in my Ferrari.  It is only a few miles out of the way for me.

So he did.  The traffic was terrible, so I was standing for half an hour by the roadside in the rain, and then we crawled all the way to some hut in Hounslow.  I would never use the public car park, obviously, he said; I leave the Ferrari here and they polish it for me.  It’s very reasonable.

How do we get to Heathrow? I asked.  Do they run you there?  It was already long after the checking-in deadline.  I’m sure a cab will come along, he said.

Of course we ended up running in front of strangers, and when we got on the plane, which they held for us, unkind remarks could be heard on all sides.  We settled into our seats.  He named the proto-oligarch.  He uses a helicopter service, he said wistfully, when he flies.  It’s very reasonable.

Nowadays, of course as often as not it’s not even Heathrow: it’s down to the depths of Hampshire for the private jet.


I have made a significant discovery as regards Wagner.  The other day I found a CD entitled The Ring Without Words.  I have always found opera singers a bit of a trial and I thought that an instrumental account of the masterwork, particularly one coming in at just over an hour as opposed to just under a day and a night, could only be a good thing.  Furthermore since the orchestra was the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel no one could suggest that it was a greatest hits package or anything vulgar of that sort.

I’ve done my dues.  I’ve attended all the operas, Covent Garden and in English.  So I felt entitled. I considered myself  a Wagnerian.

The record certainly doesn’t hang about.  No sooner had the Serious Incest Music been run through at the beginning of opera two than, bugger me, here come the Valkyries, riding.  And before you know where you are the World has ended, again.

I suppose that my view of Wagner was more or less the Stephen Fry one: horrid man, racist, early Nazi, self-obsessed, humourless, mercilessly unkind to his friends; but a composer of sublime music. The supposed antithesis didn’t bother me.  It seems to me to be evident that unpleasant people often make great art, and vice versa.  Another piece of the jigsaw came with my discovery that most of Wagner’s musical language, and even some quite specific things like the Tristan chord, were developed by the good Abbé, Franz Liszt, at a time when Wagner was still in shorts and pulling the legs off non-Aryan spiders.

Then I listened again, and the lack of singers lent the experience some perspective.  And what struck me, apart from the magnificent sound of the Berlin Philharmonic being vigorous, was that it didn’t sound sublime, it sounded exactly what you’d expect from someone who was horrid, racist, proto-Nazi, self-obsessed, humourless, unkind to his friends and had stolen his best bits.  In fact it sounded silly.  I could hear lashings of self-pity (the quality that Anthony Powell says is a prerequisite for a best-seller).  I could imagine Wagner button-holing one with the frightening intensity of the wholly humourless.  ‘I’m not joking,’ he would say, as they always do.

Maybe it is because of discovering and loving the good Abbé, his enormous humanity, decency and dignity, and his very good tunes.  Maybe it is the advancing of the years.  Maybe, after all, the fat ladies’ singing is the clue to it.