Monday, 30th October 2017

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RICH AND STRANGE - Why amuse-gueules are not amusing

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By Notebook - Ian Jack
  • Published 5.04.09
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I have a rich friend who made his considerable wealth out of investment banking and other forms of financial speculation — a way of living that until recently seemed unassailable, no matter how large the gap in income grew between people like himself and the rest of us much further down the money chain. Let’s call him Henry. I like Henry — I try not to envy him for his several houses, his private swimming pool, his collection of modernist pictures and his Bentley (plus driver), and mainly I succeed. Henry is decent and generous and gives away quite a bit of his money to good causes, social as well as cultural. Also, he has what the English call ‘no side’ to him, meaning that he’s direct and approachable, and unfettered by the manners of old money and even older universities. Henry came from nothing, pretty well, and made all his money himself. His straightforward persona often makes it too easy to forget that he lives in a different world.

Recently, he suggested that a few of us met to entertain a visiting American writer. A dinner was arranged at a London restaurant boasting a Michelin star. We were shown to our table by a head waiter who combined servility with a familiarity that suggested we were long-lost cousins: “Good to see you again, sir” and so forth, though I’d never been inside the restaurant before. The room was formal and grand and Henry seemed very at ease in it, joking with the staff as they guided him to his favourite seat. No sooner had we sat down, however, than he was whispering that we needed to lean forward to hear what he had to say.

It went roughly like this. He was investing in a certain South American country — better for Henry’s sake not to name it — and a government minister from that country had recently met him in London. “He told me he wanted a woman for the night,” Henry said, “so I fixed him up with one. It cost me a thousand pounds. She came from the Ukraine. And right now she’s sitting at the table behind us. Don’t look! She’s already recognized me and I don’t want her to be embarrassed.” Eventually, of course, I did look. She was young and pretty, heavily eye-lined but not obviously a tart. The man with her could have been anything: a financier, a politician, a pimp. Passing their table on my way to the loo, I overheard her say in an accent from eastern Europe “Oh, but that is such an amusing story”, which is what a man wants to hear if he’s paying a thousand pounds for sex, plus a restaurant bill that could run to the several hundreds.

It was an immensely pretentious place. Our bottle of wine was decanted ceremoniously, the table grew littered with those dinky little savoury appetizers called amuse-gueules, and when the food eventually came it was so complicated with contrasting flavours and frothy sauces that all sense had been knocked out of it. But the main thing was the expense. My main course — ‘Baby Lamb’, which for some reason arrived in its tiny quantity on three different plates — cost £40 and was among the cheaper items on the menu. The bill for the four of us could easily have reached £500, and that wouldn’t include the tips for the cloakroom girl and the battery of waiters, so perhaps another £100 there (because slavish attention, like a night with a good class of prostitute, doesn’t come cheap). Translated to rupees, the cost to Henry must have been about Rs 40,000.

What sort of people come here? The tables around us that night filled up with ‘hedgies’ — young hedge fund managers — because the restaurant is located in Mayfair, which is the centre of London’s hedge fund industry. But it’s also a favourite with overpaid Premier League footballers and their wives and pick-ups; it was after a night here that a few footballers took a young girl back to a Park Lane hotel room where, according to reports, two of them sexually ‘roasted’ her (as on a revolving meat spit: details best left to your imagination). Two or three years ago, when Britain was still floating on its tide of cheap credit, bankers and footballers made a point of excess, and nobody seemed too bothered, because even the poorest house owner had the illusion that he was growing richer every year. Those days have gone.

At our table, the talk turned to Sir Fred Goodwin, the Royal Bank of Scotland’s former chief executive who got away with a £700,000-a-year pension, paid for by British taxpayers. A few days before, Goodwin’s house and car had had their windows smashed by an unknown band of anti-bankers in Edinburgh. The rich are beginning to be detested rather than envied — a switch in popular emotion not witnessed before in my lifetime.

“Do you think that attack on Sir Fred’s house was just an isolated thing?” Henry asked.

It seemed to me not. In fact, it seemed to me that we were lucky that bricks weren’t raining through the windows of our restaurant even now, with broken glass sprinkling our Dover Sole and amuse-gueules, getting into the hair of the expensive prostitute and sending the hedgies under the table for shelter. But we carried on eating and drinking, like decadent French monarchs toying with larks’ tongues in aspic and trying not to notice the distant rumble from the streets. Britain is broke and the economic foundations of the world are close to collapse. In Mayfair, meanwhile, the obscene indulgence of the rich has yet to be curtailed.

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Do try to see a film called The Age of Stupid if it comes your way. It’s a campaigning documentary funded by environmental groups such as Greenpeace and directed by a young Englishwoman, Franny Armstrong, on a tiny budget of £450,000. It took five years and a great deal of commitment to make, and its urgent message is that human behaviour needs to change immediately if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided later in the century (the less-than-worst effects, which are bad enough, are coming whatever we now choose to do). In this, the film repeats the message of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, with which it has been unflatteringly, and I think unfairly, compared. The Age of Stupid isn’t perfect as a piece of cinema — it tries to cover too much with too many different techniques — but its central idea is compelling. The year is 2055. A man lives alone on a high-tech tower in the Arctic ocean, closeted with all the world’s knowledge and art stored on digital archive. Much of the rest of the world has been devastated by sea-level rise and desertification. Using film from his great library, our man (played by the lugubrious Peter Postlethwaite) tries to work out why humanity didn’t try to save itself from apocalypse when, in the first decade of the 21st century, it still had the chance.

One of the film’s leading examples of blind behaviour is Jehangir Wadia, the managing director of Go Airlines. I don’t know how Ms Armstrong persuaded him to allow her access to Go’s launch preparations, or to talk so frankly on camera, but he comes across as a businessman living in a bubble of such self-importance that he won’t care about carbon emissions until the sea has cut off Malabar Hill. Everybody should travel by air in India, according to Wadia, because the trains are so slow. We see him flying by private jet to do some charitable work in a village he’s adopted (to be fair, even Wadia seems aware of the irony). He once tried the train, he says, and it took 22 hours!

Of course, it’s hypocritical to complain about Wadia’s enterprise when the Western world is still flying as if there were no tomorrow (or would be, were it not for the crisis), but Wadia comes across as not only heedless of the future but also fractious with the present: watch him bullying his staff like a bumptious child. The makers of The Age of Stupid hope that 250 million people will have seen the film by the time the Copenhagen conference on climate change happens in December. I hope they do, too.