‘Bertie Ormerod says you’re a tactful sort of fellow. Won’t frighten the horses or get the dowagers all of a twitter.’
Lord Papworth’s rheumy eyes fixed themselves upon Amiss. ‘Smart too. Said you were as sharp as a whippet. So the upshot— the nub and gist as it were—is…can you help?’
‘I hope so,’ said Amiss hesitantly. ‘If I’m what you want, that is. Though I’m not really sure I’m what you need.’
Papworth grunted. ‘Want and need’s two different things, I grant you. You sound just like my old nanny.’ He brooded for a moment. ‘Well, I think I need what I want on this occasion and vice versa. And that’s you.’
‘If you say so, Lord Papworth. I’ve always enjoyed The Wran- gler and I’d be honoured to be its manager. But I must warn you that while I’m OK at administration, I haven’t much to offer in the way of advanced computer skills or knowledge of company law or accountancy.’
Papworth emitted a cackle so loud and derisive as to cause several of the other denizens of the Pugin Room to peer at him covertly. ‘I don’t think you quite understand. I’m not attempting to have my journal dragged into the twenty-first century: I merely have a modest aspiration that it should be assisted into the second half of the twentieth. And that that be achieved with the minimum of disruption to a largely loyal—if eccentric— workforce.’ He drained his glass, placed it firmly on the table, leaned forward and tapped Amiss on the knee. ‘What I neither need nor want is a sharp-suited young man who puts machines before people. It’s got to be someone with common sense and humanity who can staunch the haemorrhage cascading from the Papworth coffers. Drink?’
‘Thank you. Another gin and tonic would be very nice.’
Papworth flapped an arm towards the bar and pointed at their glasses.
‘Is this a new problem?’ asked Amiss, when his host had focused on him once more. ‘I mean, has there been some kind of management hiatus recently?’
‘No, no.’ Papworth cackled again. ‘It’s a very old problem that’s been neglected for years. I suppose I simply wasn’t prepared to face up to it until my son gave me a talking-to recently. Said it was all very well and grand to do one’s bit pro bono publico, but that the losses had got beyond a joke and I might bloody well remember that it was his patrimony I was playing silly buggers with.
‘“What’s more”, he added, “you’re getting on and won’t be around much longer.”’ Papworth smiled proudly. ‘Callous devil, isn’t he? But it’s a fair point nonetheless. The old Wrangler’s a heavy burden on the estate. I can see why Piers doesn’t take kindly to seeing me losing the best part of a quarter of a million a year when it probably isn’t necessary. Or most of it isn’t.’
‘You’re not tempted to sell?’
Papworth looked horrified. ‘Family’s owned The Wrangler for close on two hundred years. Not going to part with it now. Noblesse oblige and all that.’
He turned to greet the waitress as she put the drinks on the table. ‘Thank you, my dear. And how’s the arthritis?’ He counted out coins on to her tray.
‘No better, my lord. I’m thinking of packing the job in.’ ‘My goodness, Rose, you must never do that.’ He waved towards the stately Thames as it passed serenely by the terraces of the Houses of Parliament. ‘Like Ol’ Man River, my dear Rose, you must go on and on and on.’
‘That’s what Lady Thatcher said she was going to do,’ said Rose sharply. ‘And look what happened to her.’ She grinned sardonically and left.
‘Serves me right for producing clichés,’ said Papworth. ‘Now where was I? Ah, yes. Where my son is right, Mr Amiss, is in saying that while I have properly treated The Wrangler with the respect due to a family treasure, I have—like my old father before me—been guilty of gross financial irresponsibility.’ He took a thoughtful sip of whisky. ‘Not all my fault, mind you. There’s a tendency for the buggers who run the paper to carry on as if I should be down on my knees thanking them brokenly for the opportunity to subsidise them lavishly.’
He put his glass down, and for the first time, indicated resentment. ‘I mean, dammit, I had Willie Lambie Crump…d’you know who I mean?’
‘The Wrangler editor. Yes. I’ve seen him on TV a couple of times.’
‘Well, there he was at dinner the other week complaining that not enough was spent on maintaining the building, while still absolutely refusing to consider moving to cheaper premises.’
‘Where’s the office?’ ‘Mayfair.’
‘Seems a strange place for a poor magazine.’ ‘Journal,’ said Papworth automatically.
‘Is there a difference?’
‘Not really, now that you mention it. It’s just that we started out as a journal, and Wrangler editors thought the word “magazine” was vulgar.’
‘Fair enough. Mayfair seems a strange place for a poor journal.’
Papworth looked at Amiss ruefully. ‘The building’s worth a packet but the trust doesn’t allow its sale without the agreement of the editor and the editor insists the paper would not flourish anywhere else. Bloody convenient principle on which to stick, especially since he’s got a flat at the top. But when I reminded him what supporting The Wrangler was costing me, he said loftily that privilege had its penalties and that he couldn’t see that my wealth could be put to any better use than keeping The Wrangler’s standard fluttering nobly in the intellectual breeze.’ He fell silent for a moment, took another sip and put his glass down with what was close to being a thump. ‘That’s the trouble with institutions: they tend to take themselves seriously. Doesn’t matter if it’s parliament or the Jockey Club or Oxbridge colleges or gentlemen’s clubs: they’re all prone to be pompous and given to flummery. But mostly that’s harmless enough. If you ask me, the worst offenders are their greatest critics—the bloody press. ‘Take the monarchy, for instance. Fat chance the poor old royals have to be complacent these days, what with journalists pointing out their shortcomings from dawn to dusk, doing shock exposés, invading their private lives and crying “scandal” and condemning them for being out of date and wasteful of taxpayers’ money. And we’re the same in the Lords, with all the abuse thrown at us and no recognition of what we do that’s good.’ He thrust out his lip pugnaciously. ‘But of course it’s all different when the institution in question is a newspaper, magazine, journal, call it what you will. You don’t get any of that. Oh no. Journalists are beyond criticism. Dog doesn’t eat dog. Hack doesn’t eat hack. They hardly ever attack each other because they never know who they’ll be working with next week or begging a job from.’
He snorted. ‘Find me any shock-horror analysis of the dreadful management of The Wrangler, and I’ll give you a thousand quid. But don’t waste too much time looking. Because no journalist or editor will have taken the risk.’ He snorted again. ‘Hacks look after hacks and hunt in packs.’
His head fell on his chest: the diatribe appeared to be over. ‘So you’re not very keen on the profession which you so generously endow?’ proffered Amiss.
Papworth sat up straight. ‘I’m keen on The Wrangler for reasons of sentiment and habit and because I genuinely approve of its ideals. Like the paper, I believe that tradition’s good, change for change’s sake is bad and I applaud honourable intellectual enquiry with a big dash of humour. We’ve got to have a journal that’ll stand up to those puritan lefties who infest the chattering classes of every generation. God, how I hate liberals!’
Amiss wriggled uncomfortably. ‘Lord Papworth, I have to tell you that fundamentally I’m a liberal.’
Papworth shook his head. ‘Bertie put me right on that. Said you were sound through and through, just sometimes had to recite mantras about your liberal instincts to reassure yourself that you hadn’t sold out to the forces of reaction.’ He patted Amiss’s knee consolingly. ‘Don’t worry about that, dear boy. Shan’t hold it against you. Whatever you call yourself, you’ve obviously got the right stuff in you. Bertie told me of the great work you and that splendid Troutbeck battleaxe did to scupper that anti-hunting bill. Don’t you worry about that liberal nonsense. You’ll slough it all off soon enough.’
The words, ‘That’s what I’m afraid of,’ rose to Amiss’s lips, but remained unsaid. He needed a job, so he swallowed his scruples along with some more gin.
Papworth ruminated some more. ‘Mind you, The Wrangler trust hasn’t exactly been a spur to modernization.’
‘I hadn’t realized there was a trust. I thought you owned it outright.’
‘Oh, I own it. But I can’t meddle with it without the approval of the trustees.’
‘So you’ve got the worst of both worlds. How did that happen?’
‘Sometime in the late ‘twenties, some ghastly jumped-up merchant was showing an interest in buying it and there was a mass outbreak of panic among the journalists: cries of doom and disaster and the death of editorial freedom and all that.
‘Of course, Papa reassured them that he wouldn’t dream of selling, but then they pointed out that he could die tomorrow and there was absolutely nothing to stop me selling up the day after. And despite Papa’s protestations and my reassurances the outcry continued.’
He laughed. ‘Mind you, in fairness, they had some justification for being worried about me. I was only ten and there was no knowing how I was going to turn out; indeed, I’d been heard to express a few bolshie opinions. The upshot was that Papa set up a trust to guard the soul of the paper. Very high-minded, my old father.’
‘What is the role of the trust?’
‘Protects the editor against the proprietor essentially. I can neither hire nor fire an editor without the trustees’ approval. And if I behave towards the editor in any way that he regards as interfering with the ethos of the paper, he goes off whingeing to the trustees and they rebuke and overrule me. They’ve got total editorial control, which in practice they cede to the editor.’
‘Does the system work?’
‘Oh yes. It works. For the editor, anyway. The proprietor is impotent. D’you know, thoughtlessly I once asked a Wrangler editor if he wouldn’t mind being kind to a book by my mate Freddie Dalrymple and he promptly gave the book for review to Freddie’s greatest enemy.’
Papworth chuckled genially. ‘I didn’t mind really. Should have known better. Still, sometimes it’s hard not to feel a bit fed up at the high-handed way some of these buggers treat me. In the view of Wrangler staff, the proprietor’s only role is to pick up the bill. Oh, yes, and to host the annual party and give the odd dinner for the trustees, the staff and various notables they’d like to meet. And they’ll give me an affectionate obituary when I turn up my toes.
‘However, bearing in mind what my son said so trenchantly, I have to accept that I’m being a touch profligate in paying over two hundred thousand pounds a year for the few privileges I’ve just outlined. I’d be glad if you’ll do what you can.’
‘Am I replacing anyone?’
‘No, you’re a new appointment.’
‘But that means that in hiring me you’re adding another thirty thou to your outgoings.’
‘My dear boy, from what Bertie tells me of your resourcefulness and from what I know of the staff ’s inefficiency, you’ll have no difficulty whatsoever in rapidly making savings that will more than compensate for that. Just remember I want no blood on the carpet.’
He rose. ‘Now come along and let us dine and I’ll tell you a bit more about my tribulations with the inhabitants of Number ten, Percy Square.’