Last March I went skiing with some friends. A debate began around dessert wine. Since I’m a teetotaller these days, I rather left them to it. As the Sauternes flowed and the discussion became more colourful than coherent I was taken back to summer 1982 and my first encounter with sweet white wine served with dessert.
I joined my law firm the previous June, just before Charlie and Di spliced the knot in St Paul’s. I was pretty green and definitely unused to how the City of London functioned. My dad tried to give me pointers but since his last experiences had been at a time when you still wore a bowler hat and could be ostracised from polite company for failing to furl your umbrella in the approved clockwise manner he was about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
As I always did, in those far off days of social ignorance (to be accurate I can still be socially ignorant; it’s just that, these days, I don’t give a rodent’s gonads) I watched and tried to learn from the behaviour of others. Possibly that’s why they call the world of finance a zoo, so many people are watching, fascinated by these hard-wired and apparently arcane rituals performed by mammals who should really have evolved a little more before being given money.
I was hired, not so much for my skill-set – there was a fair degree of guess work at the interview – but because I seemed super keen in a Mary Poppins ‘spit-spot’ kind of way and they hoped I would make up for what I lacked in knowledge and legal expertise with an abundance of effort.
One of the early deals I worked on involved the leasing of a brand new building in Poole for an American credit card company. It was to house their computer facility and was enormous; these days you’d probably need a phone box to house the same computing capacity. The deal was what is, in retrospect called ‘a good learning experience’ but which at the time was more like a laxative. Eventually, through a mix of subterfuge, chutzpah and fibbing the client got the desired result and everyone, who until five minutes before would happily have given several body parts and as yet unsired offspring never to have seen the others again, professed themselves content. Backs were cordially slapped, undying respect for their opponents’ skilful negotiations assured, and said deal was confirmed as ‘fair and fine’ even if earlier it sounded as if the self same terms were the equivalent of being given a hedgehog enema.
I stood to one side, marvelling at this new skill – hypocrisy – I realised I would have to develop alongside two others I had identified during the course of these negotiations, namely an ability to function without sleep and bullshitting.
‘We must celebrate. Lunch.’ The senior lawyer in the room, a man with weasel in his DNA opined.
‘Of course,’ said another, a banker. ‘A good one.’
A silence ensued, bringing a gravity to this otherwise euphoric moment. Eyes turned to the clients. Mine, working for an American business was stared at especially beadily. He sighed. ‘Yes, I’ll pay.’
Grace and decorum restored, we departed for our respective offices. I rather assumed this last exchange was just another example of unfulfilled promises which I had already begun to recognise as part of the fabric of City life but no, within days a call came through from said aged lawyer’s Secretary inquiring of the client’s availability. ‘Oh,’ she added, ‘Mr So ‘n So wants to know if Mr Wotsit will be attending. Can you ask him?’
Mr Wotist was my boss on this job, the partner in charge but before you form an impression of some sage eminence who gave me helpful guidance and the benefit of years of accumulated wisdom let me disabuse that notion: delegation had a precise meaning back then – the delegator told the delegatee what the job entailed and the next contact expected of both of us would be either to report (1) the job had cratered (2) the job had closed; or (3) I had managed to cock things up so spectacularly that a swift note to the professional indemnity insurers might prove prudent.
At the time, I shared a room with a wise senior lawyer who was eventually to move to other firm having been rejected for a partnership. He overheard half that conversation and stopped me as I rose to go and check the Wotsit diary. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Don’t be a total plonker.’
There was one grand thing about Rupert. He never spoke in code, an unusual trait in a lawyer. He continued, ‘If Wotsit is free he will be the guest and you won’t go. He will justify it on the grounds of ensuring the client receives the satisfaction of knowing that the partner is fully aware of and interested in his business. A lunch is, you will be told, the perfect opportunity for such relaxed schmoozing.’
I nodded but I was too young. I went and asked. ‘… it will be the perfect opportunity to assure the client that we are fully aware of and interested in…’
Another important lesson: have a radar for cynicism.
As it turned out the client didn’t want ‘a mystery guest, so tell him if he goes to the lunch and not you, the next job goes to (insert name of rival)’
I didn’t but he did and, hurrah huzzah! Wotsit was already engaged that lunchtime. I was deemed an adequate substitute.
My roommate told me to enjoy myself. As I grabbed my jacket he ended with, ‘See you tomorrow.’
I nodded. He must have a meeting out of the office later that afternoon.
I shared the lift with the Head of Department. ‘Have a good time and see you tomorrow.’
Was everyone out at meetings?
Bill, on reception gave me a wink. ‘Don’t eat too much. Save some space for the wine.’
I grinned. I’d probably have a beer (back then I did partake).
‘See you tomorrow.’
Now this did confuse me. Bill’s shift ended an hour after the official office closing time. I would definitely see him again. Before I could inquire about possible doctor’s appointments the client appeared and we left for the restaurant.
The senior lawyer had booked a private room in a seriously posh French restaurant on the south side of Covent Garden. A glass of fizz awaited us. I’d only drunk fizz at weddings and this seemed a mite indulgent but the client was happy – his expenses were paying – so I necked that.
After that, there was white with the starters and red with the main and more red. It was a sunny day and despite it being daylight my eyes wanted to close. The skin on my cheeks had begun to shrink and tighten and thoughts seemed to end before they should.
Don’t get me wrong: I played a lot of rugby. I knew what getting drunk felt like. It was just that (a) drunk usually equated with a night time activity and (b) it had never involved a civilised, no doubt vastly expensive lunch.
But the good side to drunk is it is a fairy egalitarian affliction and everyone in that room had contracted a dose of a kind. For my part though I wasn’t so far gone that I had lost complete track. A glance at my watch told me it was already gone three and I really ought to be back at my desk. If I’d been questioned in advance I’d have said I expected everyone to need to get back too.
The conversation seemed to be centring on whose club we should go on to after finishing the meal. Everyone, me apart, joined in. I didn’t know what to do.
It was then that desserts were ordered. This place, it turned out, was famous for its stunning creme brûlée. The host announced we would be having ‘a rather splendid little number’ to accompany the puds. By this time I think everyone knew how naive I was at this sort of thing.
‘Well Geoffrey, have you tried dessert wines?’
I didn’t know that there was such a thing so I shook my head.
‘This will blow your mind.’ A fair few nods and smiles accompanied this statement.
The wine was poured with all due deference. It glowed in the low light a sort of amber meets ice effect. Under several watchful gazes I sipped. I took a mouthful of creamy niceness and sipped again. My taste buds had gone to Nirvana and been bathed in the finest milk. My brain however had been turned inside out and gone in search of my sanity which had decided to have a couple of hours kip. To say I was almost instantly befuddled would be an exaggeration. It took minutes.
I have found, when drunk, I become razor sharp. I focus on one thought to the exclusion of all else. In this case the need to get back to the office to sign my post.
‘Noooo!’ The assembled multitude cried.
Somewhere, deep buried my sanity looked up briefly from its slumbers and nodded its agreement. I pulled the duvet over its head and wished it shut the eff up.
Somehow I managed to return to the office. I have a vague recollection of Bill’s surprise and then increasing horror. At the time I expect I attributed that to my tardy return from my prandial repast. I hurried to the lift, ignoring his blandishments to ‘hang on a mo’.
In my office my post sat on my blotter. A note on the top from my secretary said, I think, ‘I’ve dated them tomorrow.’
It was quite difficult to read, I realised. Maybe a quick few moments of shut eye. I rested my head on the note and….
‘Come on, old fella, home time.’
My roomy, back early from his meeting I suppose. I may have tried to speak. Neither of us found the sounds at all helpful.
Mr Wotsit appeared in the doorway. Some part of me felt it likely that what I was doing as not a good thing but he smiled and said, ‘well done.’
I imagine I was surprised but then, indeed getting myself back to the office was an achievement.
Later, maybe a minute or two, maybe a few eons, I was in a taxi looking at the river as we crossed it heading south towards my flat. Later still I was hopping around my bedroom trying to get out of my trousers.
The next day was grim. The hangover felt like Krakatoa was reprising its greatest eruptions through a Led Zeppelin speaker stack that someone had grafted onto my head. I made it into the office even though my ability to see was fundamentally impaired.
Several people looked, nudged and looked away, as people do when someone is bereaved and they don’t know what to say. My bereavement would come in the shape of the death of my job.
‘Mr Wotsit wants a word. In the senior partner’s room.’
Oh goodness. I was to be defenestrated by the Archangel.
Mr Wotsit and the SP. sat me down, offered me coffee. No beating about the bush. ‘The client is delighted. He thinks you are an excellent lawyer and a fine young man…’
There were so many buts hanging in the air it was like I’d stumbled onto an arse drying contest.
‘But… if you expect to get on in the City, there is one rule you need to learn now. After a client lunch like that you do not, under any circumstances, return to the office. Understood?’
Such a different world that was. In five years no one drank spirits at lunch any more and by 1990 port was on the wane. By the time Tone Blair toothed his way into number Ten wine at lunch was fading to memory like the telex machine and honest banking. By the turn of the Millennium, there were still client lunches and they could be boozy but more often than not they weren’t. And I knew what dessert wine could do to me.
I looked at my fellow skiers. They didn’t care. They weren’t going back to any office either.