I found myself in the West End, behind the Royal Academy the other day. I realised I was outside a building behind the Burlington Arcade. It’s nothing special, offices over shops with a restaurant on one corner. But this building was the scene of a confrontation that had international consequences of major import and which could have had a defining impact on my career – and not in a good way.
Back in the 1990s and coming out of recession the London property market and especially Offices in what’s known as the West End were making something of a quantum leap in value. If you had an office building, especially if over 25,000 sq feet, you were in a sort of 49ers gold rush territory.
My client bought a tired building with offices over two shops and a restaurant. He had plans to extend the offices beyond that sunlit upland of size, but to do so he needed to keep the tenants of the shops on side. Their leases ran for several years and neither tenant wanted to move.
So the client decided to do the works and leave the tenants in place. The inevitable disruption caused much wailing and gnashing of faxes between lawyers, culminating in one awful morning when I was summoned to the site to find one shop owner – a tall, somewhat lopsided antiquarian bookseller – positively fizzing with barely suppressed rage as he watched, helpless as his shop window, by dint of some less than satisfactory drainage, appeared to be filling with the water that was running off the front of the building from the stone cleaning above.
‘Looks like an aquarium’, the contractor opined, less than helpfully.
’Why hasn’t anyone turned it off?’ I proffered, at which said contractor sucked his teeth, muttered something about programmes having to run their course and disappeared.
The client paid handsomely but any scintilla of goodwill had not so much evaporated as plunged to the Stygian depths.
Happily there were no other problems during the main construction phase, but now the client wanted to start marketing the offices. He appointed one of the top letting agents in the West End. I was there when the Guru attended, to answer any legal queries. Said polymath studied the outside and turned to me. ‘When do the tenants move out?’
’Sorry? Surely we need tenants to move in first?’
I’m used to expressions indicating I’m half-witted but this one was particularly professional, one that had been honed over many fraught negotiations. Brexit would be a cinch with such expressions available to our team of doughty bargain-hunters.
‘The shops. They detract,’ his voice took on a funereal, undertaker-in-full-condolence mode tone, ‘from the ambience.’
Essentially the lack of coherence was a problem. As was the idea they might give up their tenacnies. In the end a package of ‘opportunities’ was proposed – a.k.a. a major bung. One tenant – the one not related to Noah – accepted with alacrity as did the restauranteur but the antiquarian saw an opportunity to make life hard.
Fortunately for our client, business hadn’t been good so the offer of a long rent holiday, a brand new frontage and a fancy new awning proved too attractive to be too principled.
The tenant’s lawyer and I had locked horns several times but by now we were willing participants in what we hoped would be the end of this fraught interface. The one remaining point was who controlled the awning. On the advice of the mega-brain, our clients insisted on a central control with all the awnings across the front of the building either in or out. Mix and match didn’t cut it. It seemed rather meah to we lawyers but hey, whatever floats your boat, as they say.
Our client had his way and all was just peachy as spring turned into a hot steamy summer.
Several prospective tenants had viewed the offices but nothing had been concluded when London experienced a particularly humid afternoon.
The clouds gathered like a chorus of disgruntled executioners who’d just been told all hangings had been suspended indefinitely. At about 4.30 the heavens opened and a deluge hit town.
Twenty minutes later the security guard, looking after the offices, shut up for the day. His penultimate job, before locking up, was to close all three awnings. There was a button in reception, each awning worked electronically from there.
Sometimes it only takes one press of one button to ensure mutual annihilation.
As the awnings began their slow, inexorably retreat, Hiro Satsuma and his wife stood at the Antiquarian’s window admiring a small Louis XVII casket that held some first editions. Mrs Satsuma, in deference to the heat, wore the light, silken robes that proved their worth in the equally sapping heat of a Tokyo summer.
At the same moment that Hiro pointed out some particularly fine piece of mother-of-pearl inlay, our awning was struggling to close. Something approximating two liquid tonnes of England’s finest rainwater had ponded in the canvas covering; if the awning was to close then it had to find another home.
For some moments there was a struggle for supremacy between the liquid masses and the powerful electric motor. The motor won and with something between a sigh and a tumultuous shrug the water, every billion of those little molecules, formed themselves into an impromptu tsunami.
Did the Satsumas look up and realise their doom was nigh? Or were they taken completely unawares by this free albeit unconventional al fresco ablution? Whatever their state of readiness, their clothes were utterly unprepared for this rapid inundation.
Hiro’s tie was twisted out of shape and his shirt stretched to unfeasibly supersized proportions ; worse, his worsted grey suit was totally bollocked.
However his sartorial saturation was as nothing to Mrs Satsuma’s. By all accounts she was a dapper woman, petite and delicate. The confluence of delicate silk and modest if insubstantial lingerie and the contents of an Olympic swimming pool descending on her from seven feet up rendered her naked in less time than it takes to scream ‘Banzai!’.
The Japanese pride themselves on such matters as face. Especially saving it. They have numerous strategies to avoid embarrassment but whoever wrote the definitive guide filled to include a section on what to do if unexpectedly waterboarded in central London. Hiro was left to a hardwired response. He was muderously livid, with every right. His wife mortified.
While this unfortunate turn of events was occurring the Antiquarian had been keeping an eye on the Satsumas. This could be the sale he was hoping for and when the door bell tinkled and Hiro entered, at least initially, he felt his prayers had been answered. The passionate, albeit incoherent Japanese that spewed from Hiro’s gurning mouth alerted the retailer to an alternative scenario and, in the parlance of International diplomacy, he understood that wheels needed to be put in motion if he wasn’t to be completely and utterly fucked.
About an hour later, I was on site with the letting and managing agents, the security company, the police and the Antiquarian’s lawyer. Rumours that the Yakuza were also on their way rather focused our minds towards a solution. The Satsumas were taken back to their hotel for tea and counselling while the Antiquarian eyed me tiredly, all colour drained from his face. ‘Why does your client hate me, Mr Le Pard?’
I had no answer. To suggest Act of God would have been to ask him to believe that even the most capricious of deities could be a complete and utter bastard. I sympathised. I acknowledged reparations would be due but he shook his head. ‘I was thinking about calling it a day, mostly because business isn’t really picking up as I hoped. Maybe this is the push I needed. I’m taking a break anyway. Give me time to think.’
’Oh, really? Anywhere nice?’
To describe his look as bleak would be to suggest Dickens wrote comedies.