The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)
Chapter 33. Son of the author’s father
It took me a long while to get on writing terms with Ronnie, conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father.
From the day I made my first faltering attempts at a novel, he was the one I wanted to get to grips with, but I was light years away from being up to the job. My earliest drafts of what eventually became A Perfect Spy dripped with self-pity: cast your eye, gentle reader, upon this emotionally crippled boy, crushed underfoot by his tyrannical father. It was only when he was safely dead and I took up the novel again that I did what I should have done at the beginning, and made the sins of the son a whole lot more reprehensible than the sins of the father.
With that settled, I was able to honour the legacy of his tempestuous life: a cast of characters to make the most blasé writer’s mouth water, from eminent legal brains of the day and stars of sport and screen to the finest of London’s criminal underworld and the beautiful creatures who trailed in their wake. Wherever Ronnie went, the unpredictable went with him. Are we up or down? Can we fill up the car on tick at the local garage? Has he fled the country or will he be proudly parking the Bentley in the drive tonight? Or hiding it in the back garden, turning out the house lights, checking doors and windows, and murmuring into the telephone if it hasn’t been cut off? Or is he enjoying the safety and comfort of one of his alternative wives?
Of Ronnie’s dealings with organized crime, if any, I know lamentably little. Yes, he rubbed shoulders with the notorious Kray twins, but that may just have been celebrity-hunting. And yes, he did business of a sort with London’s worst-ever landlord Peter Rachman, and my best guess would be that when Rachman’s thugs had got rid of Ronnie’s tenants for him, he sold off the houses and gave Rachman a piece.
But a full-on criminal partnership? Not the Ronnie I knew. Conmen are aesthetes. They wear nice suits, have clean fingernails and are well spoken at all times. Policemen in Ronnie’s book were first-rate fellows who were open to negotiation. The same could not be said of ‘the boys’ as he called them, and you messed with the boys at your peril.
Tension? Ronnie’s entire life was spent walking on the thinnest, slipperiest layer of ice you can imagine. He saw no paradox between being on the Wanted list for fraud and sporting a grey topper in the Owners’ enclosure at Ascot. A reception at Claridge’s to celebrate his second marriage was interrupted while he persuaded two Scotland Yard detectives to put off arresting him until the party was over - and meanwhile, come in and join the fun, which they duly did.
But I don’t think Ronnie could have lived any other way. I don’t think he wanted to. He was a crisis addict, a performance addict, a shameless pulpit orator and a scene-grabber. He was a delusional enchanter and a persuader who saw himself as God’s golden boy, and he wrecked a lot of people’s lives.
Graham Greene tells us that childhood is the credit balance of the writer. By that measure at least, I was born a millionaire.
For the last third of Ronnie’s life - he died suddenly at the age of sixty-nine - we were estranged or at loggerheads. Almost by mutual consent, there were terrible obligatory scenes, and when we buried the hatchet we always remembered where we’d put it. Do I feel more kindly towards him today than I did then? Sometimes I walk round him, sometimes he’s the mountain I still have to climb. Either way, he’s always there, which I can’t say for my mother, because to this day I have no idea what sort of person she was. The versions of her that have been offered me by those who were close to her and loved her have not been enlightening. Perhaps I didn’t want them to be. I ran her to earth when I was twenty-one, and thereafter broadly attended to her needs, not always with good grace. But from the day of our reunion until she died, the frozen child in me showed not the smallest sign of thawing out. Did she love animals? Landscape? The sea that she lived beside? Music? Painting? Me? Did she read books? Certainly she had no high opinion of mine, but what about other people’s?
In the nursing home where she stayed during her last years, we spent much of our time deploring or laughing at my father’s misdeeds. As my visits continued, I came to realize that she had created for herself - and for me - an idyllic mother-son relationship that had flowed uninterrupted from my birth till now.
Today, I don’t remember feeling any affection in childhood except for my elder brother, who for a time was my only parent. I remember a constant tension in myself that even in great age has not relaxed. I remember little of being very young. I remember the dissembling as we grew up, and the need to cobble together an identity for myself, and how in order to do this I filched from the manners and lifestyle of my peers and betters, even to the extent of pretending I had a settled home life with real parents and ponies. Listening to myself today, watching myself when I have to, I can still detect traces of the lost originals, chief among them obviously my father.
All this no doubt made me an ideal recruit to the secret flag. But nothing lasted: not the Eton schoolmaster, not the MI5 man, not the MI6 man. Only the writer in me stuck the course. If I look over my life from here, I see it as a succession of engagements and escapes, and I thank goodness that the writing kept me relatively straight and largely sane. My father’s refusal to accept the simplest truth about himself set me on a path of enquiry from which I never returned. In the absence of a mother or sisters I learned women late, if ever, and we all paid a price for that.
In my childhood, everyone around me tried to sell me the Christian God in one form or another. I got the low church from my aunts, uncles and grandparents, and the high church from my schools. When I was brought to the bishop to be confirmed, I tried my hardest to feel pious, and felt nothing. For another ten years I went on trying to acquire some sort of religious conviction, then gave it up as a bad job. Today, I have no god but landscape, and no expectation of death but extinction. I rejoice constantly in my family and the people who love me, and whom I love in return. Walking the Cornish cliffs, I am overtaken with surges of gratitude for my life.
Yes, I have seen the house where I was born. Cheerful aunts pointed it out to me a hundred times as we skimmed by. But the house of my birth that I prefer is a different one, built in my imagination. It’s red brick and clattery and due for demolition, with broken windows, a ‘For Sale’ sign, and an old bath in the garden. It stands in a plot of weeds and builders’ junk, with a bit of stained glass in the smashed front door - a place for kids to hide in, rather than be born. But born there I was, or so my imagination insists, and what’s more I was born in the attic, among a stack of brown boxes that my father always carted round with him when he was on the run.
When I made my first clandestine inspection of those boxes, some time around the outbreak of the Second World War - for by the age of eight I was already a well-trained spy - they contained only personal stuff: his Masonic regalia, the barrister’s wig and gown with which he proposed to astonish a waiting world as soon as he had got round to studying law, and such top-secret items as his plans for selling fleets of airships to the Aga Khan. But once war finally broke out, the brown boxes offered more substantial fare: black-market Mars bars, Benzedrine inhalers for shooting stimulant up your nose and, after D-Day, nylon stockings and ballpoint pens.
Ronnie had a penchant for weird commodities provided they were rationed or not available. Two decades later, when Germany was still divided and I was a British diplomat living on the banks of the River Rhine in Bonn, he appeared unannounced in my gateway, his ample frame squeezed inside a steel coracle with wheels attached. It was an amphibious motorcar, he explained. A prototype. He had acquired the British patent from its manufacturers in Berlin, and it was about to make our fortunes. He had driven it down the interzonal corridor under the gaze of East German frontier guards, and now he proposed to launch it, with my help, into the Rhine, which happened to be swollen at the time, and very fast flowing.
I dissuaded him despite my children’s enthusiasm and gave him lunch instead. Refreshed, he set off in great excitement for Ostend and England. How far he got I don’t know, for the car was not spoken of again. I assume that somewhere along the journey creditors caught up with him and removed it.
But that didn’t stop him from popping up in Berlin two years later, announcing himself as my ‘professional adviser’, in which capacity he received a VIP tour of West Berlin’s largest film studio, and no doubt a great deal of the studio’s hospitality and a starlet or two, and a lot of sales patter about tax breaks and subsidies on offer to foreign filmmakers, and notably to the makers of the movie of my recent novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
It goes without saying that neither I nor Paramount Pictures, who had already made their deal with Ardmore Studios in Ireland, had the smallest idea of what he was up to.
There’s no electricity in the house of my birth, and no heating, so the light comes from the gas lamps on Constitution Hill, which give the attic a creamy glow. My mother lies on a camp bed, pitifully doing her best, whatever her best may entail - I was not conversant with the niceties of childbirth when I first pictured this scene. Ronnie is champing in the doorway, wearing a snappy gent’s double-breasted and the brown-and-white brogues he played golf in, keeping an eye to the street while in pounding cadences he urges my mother to greater efforts:
‘God in Heaven, Wiggly, why can’t you get a move on for once? It’s a damned shame is what it is, and no two ways about it. There’s poor old Humphries, sitting in the car out there, catching his death and all you do is shilly-shally.’
Though my mother’s first name was Olive, my father called her Wiggly, rain or shine. Later, when technically I grew up, I too gave women silly nicknames in order to make them less formidable.
Ronnie’s voice when I was young was still Dorset, with heavy ‘r’s and long ‘a’s. But the self-laundering was in progress and by the time I was an adolescent he was almost - but never quite - well spoken. Englishmen, we are told, are branded on the tongue, and in those days being well spoken could gain you a military commission, bank credit, respectful treatment from policemen and a job in the City of London. And it’s one of the ironies of Ronnie’s mercurial life that, by realizing his ambition of sending my brother and me to posh schools, he placed himself socially below us by the cruel standards of the time. Tony and I were whisked effortlessly through the class sound barrier, while Ronnie remained stuck the other side.
Not that he exactly paid for our education - or not always, so far as I can make out - but either way he fixed it. One school, after a taste of his ways, bravely demanded its fees up front. It received them at Ronnie’s leisure in deferred black-market dried fruit - figs, bananas, prunes - and a case of unobtainable gin for the staff.
Yet he remained, which was his genius, to all outward appearances a most respectable man. Respect, not money, was what he cared for above everything. Every day he had to have his magic recognized. His judgement of other people depended entirely on how much they respected him. At the humble level of life, there’s a Ronnie in every second street in London, in every county town. He’s the back-slapping, two-fisted tearaway naughty boy with a touch of the blarney, who throws champagne parties for people who aren’t used to being given champagne, opens his garden to the local Baptists for their fête though he never sets foot inside their church, is honorary president of the boys’ football team and the men’s cricket team and presents them with silver cups for their championships.
Until one day it turns out he hasn’t paid the milkman for a year, or the local garage, or the newspaper shop, or the wine shop, or the shop that sold him the silver sports cups, and maybe he goes bankrupt or goes to jail, and his wife takes the children to live with her mother, and eventually she divorces him because she discovers - and her mother knew it all along - that he’s been screwing every girl in the neighbourhood and has kids he hasn’t mentioned. And when our naughty boy comes out or gets himself temporarily straight, he lives small for a while and does good works and takes pleasure in simple things, till the sap rises again and he’s back to his old games.
My father was that fellow, no question, all of the above. But that was only the beginning. The difference is in scale, in his episcopal bearing, his ecumenical voice and his air of injured sanctity when anyone dares to doubt his word, and his infinite powers of self-delusion. While your run-of-the-mill naughty boy is blowing the last of the housekeeping money on the three-thirty handicap at Newmarket, Ronnie is relaxing serenely at the big table in Monte Carlo with a complimentary brandy-and-ginger in front of him, with myself aged seventeen and pretending to be older, seated on one side of him and King Farouk’s equerry, aged fifty-plus, on the other. The equerry is most welcome at this table. He has bought it many times over. He is polished, grey-haired, innocuous and very tired. The white telephone at his elbow links him directly to his Egyptian king, who is surrounded by astrologers. The white phone rings, the equerry removes his hand from his chin, raises the receiver, listens with his long eyelids lowered and dutifully transfers another chunk of the wealth of Egypt to red, or black, or whatever number is considered propitious by the zodiacal wizards of Alexandria or Cairo.
For some while now Ronnie has been observing this process, a combative little smile to himself that says, ‘If that’s the way you want it, old son, that’s the way it’s got to be.’ And he starts to raise his own bids around the table. Purposefully. Tens become twenties. Twenties, fifties. And as he splashes out the last of his chips and beckons imperiously for more, I realize he is not playing a hunch, or playing the house, or playing the numbers. He is playing King Farouk. If Farouk favours black, Ronnie goes for red. If Farouk backs odd, Ronnie raises him on even. We are talking hundreds by now (these days thousands). And what Ronnie is telling His Egyptian Majesty - as a term’s worth, then a year’s worth, of my school fees vanish into the croupier’s maw - is that Ronnie’s line to the Almighty is a great deal more efficacious than some tin-pot Arab potentate’s.
In the soft blue twilight of Monte Carlo before dawn, father and son saunter side by side along the esplanade to a twenty-four-hour jeweller’s shop to pawn his platinum cigarette case, gold fountain pen and wristwatch. Bucherer? Boucheron? I’m warm. ‘Win it all back tomorrow with interest, right, old son?’ he says as we retire to bed in the Hôtel de Paris, where he has mercifully prepaid our room bills. ‘Ten o’clock sharp,’ he adds severely, lest I am thinking of malingering.
So I am born. Of my mother, Olive. Obediently, with the haste Ronnie has demanded of her. In a final push to forestall creditors and prevent Mr Humphries from catching his death while he crouches outside in his Lanchester. For Mr Humphries is not just a cab driver but a valued confederate, as well as a fully paid-up member of the exotic Court with which Ronnie surrounds himself, and a distinguished amateur conjuror who does tricks with bits of rope like hangman’s nooses. In high times he is replaced by Mr Nutbeam and a Bentley, but in low times Mr Humphries with his Lanchester is always ready to oblige.
I am born, and packed up with my mother’s few possessions, for we have recently suffered another bailiff’s visitation and are travelling light. I am loaded into the boot of Mr Humphries’ taxi like one of Ronnie’s contraband hams a few years hence. The brown boxes are thrown in after me and the lid of the boot is locked from the outside. I peer around in the darkness for a sign of my elder brother, Tony. He is not in evidence. Neither is Olive, alias Wiggly. Never mind, I have been born and, like a brand-new foal, am already on the run. I have been on the run ever since.
I have another confected childhood memory that, according to my father, who had every right to know, is equally inaccurate. It is four years later and I am in the city of Exeter, walking across a patch of wasteland. I am holding the hand of my mother, Olive, alias Wiggly. As we are both wearing gloves, there is no fleshly contact between us. And indeed, so far as I recall, there never was any. It was Ronnie who did the hugging, never Olive. She was the mother who had no smell, whereas Ronnie smelled of fine cigars, and pear-droppy hair oil from Taylor of Old Bond Street, Court Hairdressers, and when you put your nose into the fleecy cloth of one of Mr Berman’s tailored suits you seemed to smell his women there as well. Yet when, at the age of twenty-one, I advanced on Olive down No. 1 platform at Ipswich railway station for our great reunion after sixteen hugless years, I couldn’t work out for the life of me where to grab hold of her. She was as tall as I remembered her, but all elbow and no huggable contours. With her toppling walk and long, vulnerable face she could have been my brother Tony in Ronnie’s legal wig.
I am in Exeter again, swinging on Olive’s gloved hand. At the far side of the wasteland is a road from which I see a high, red brick wall with spikes and broken glass along its top, and behind the wall a grim flat-fronted building with barred windows and no light inside them. And in one of these barred windows, looking exactly like a Monopoly convict when you go directly to jail, without passing go or collecting two hundred pounds, stands my father from the shoulders up. Like the Monopoly man, he is clutching the bars with both big hands. Women always told him what lovely hands he had and he was forever grooming them with clippers from his jacket pocket. His wide, white forehead is pressed against the bars. He never had much hair, and what there was of it ran fore and aft over his crown in a tight black, sweet-smelling river, stopping short of the dome that did so much for his saintly image of himself. As he grew older, the river turned grey, then dried up altogether, but the wrinkles of age and dissolution that he had so richly earned never materialized. Goethe’s Eternal Feminine prevailed in him till the end.
He was as proud of his head as he was of his hands, according to Olive, and soon after their marriage mortgaged it for fifty pounds to medical science, cash in advance and the goods to be delivered on his death. I don’t know when she told me this, but I know that from the day this knowledge was entrusted to me, I eyed Ronnie with something of the detachment of an executioner. His neck was very broad, hardly a kink where it joined his upper body. I wondered where I would aim the axe if I were doing the job. Killing him was an early preoccupation of mine, and it has endured off and on even after his death. Probably it is no more than my exasperation that I could absolutely never pin him down.
Still clutching Olive’s gloved hand, I wave at Ronnie high up in the wall and Ronnie waves the way he always waved: leaning back and with the upper body dead still while one prophetic arm commands the skies above his head. ‘Daddy, Daddy!’ I yell. My voice is a giant frog’s. On Olive’s hand I march back to the car feeling thoroughly pleased with myself. Not every small boy, after all, has his mother to himself and keeps his father in a cage.
But, according to my father, none of this happened. The notion that I might have seen him in any of his prisons offended him very much - ‘Sheer invention from start to finish, son.’ All right, he conceded, he did a bit of time in Exeter, but mostly he was in Winchester and the Scrubs. He’d done nothing criminal, nothing that couldn’t have been sorted out between reasonable people. He’d been in the position of the office boy who’d borrowed a few bob from the stamp box and been caught before he had a chance to put them back. But that wasn’t the point, he insisted. The point, as he confided to my half-sister Charlotte, his daughter by another marriage, when he was complaining about my generally disrespectful behaviour towards him - i.e. I wouldn’t give him a cut of my royalties or put up a few hundred thousand to develop a nice bit of green belt he’d gulled out of some misguided local council - the point was that anyone who knows the inside of Exeter jail knows perfectly well you can’t see the road from the cells.
And I believe him. Still. I’m wrong and he was right. He was never at that window and I never waved to him. But what’s the truth? What’s memory? We should find another name for the way we see past events that are still alive in us. I saw him in that window but I also see him there now, grasping the bars, his bull’s chest encased in the convict’s uniform, with arrows printed on it, as worn in all the best school comics. There is a part of me that never afterwards saw him wearing anything else. And I know I was four years old when I saw him because a year later he was at large again, and a few weeks or months after that my mother slipped away in the night, disappearing for sixteen years before I rediscovered her in Suffolk, the mother of two other children who had grown up unaware of their half-brothers’ existence. She took with her one fine white hide suitcase by Harrods, silk-lined, which I found in her cottage when she died. It was the only thing in the whole house that bore witness to her first marriage, and I have it still.
I saw him crouching in his cell, too, on the edge of his bunk with his mortgaged head in his hands, a proud young man who’d never in his life gone hungry or washed his own socks or made his own bed, thinking of his three pious doting sisters and two adoring parents, his mother heartbroken and forever wringing her hands and asking God, ‘Why, why?’ in her Irish brogue, and his father a former mayor of Poole, an alderman and Freemason. Both serving Ronnie’s time with him in their minds. Both turning prematurely white-haired while they waited for him.
How could Ronnie bear knowing all that while he stared at the wall? With his pride and prodigious energy and drive, how did he cope with the confinement? I’m as restless as he was. I can’t sit still for an hour. I can’t read a book for an hour unless it’s in German, which somehow keeps me in my chair. Even at a good play, I long for the interval and a stretch. When I’m writing, I’m forever bouncing up from my desk and charging round the garden or up the street. I’ve only to lock myself in the loo for three seconds - the key has fallen out of its hold and I’m fumbling to get it back in - and I’m in a Force 12 sweat and screaming to be let out. Yet Ronnie at the prime of his life did serious time - three or four years. He was still serving one sentence when they slapped some more charges on him and gave him a second, this time with hard labour or, as we might call it today with our horrible misuse of the word, enhanced incarceration. The stretches he did in later life - Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, Zurich - were, to the best of my knowledge, short. Researching The Honourable Schoolboy in Hong Kong, I came face to face with his ex-jailer at the Jardine Matheson tent at Happy Valley racecourse.
‘Mr Cornwell, sir, your father is one of the finest men I ever met. It was a privilege to look after him. I’m retiring soon and when I get back to London he’s going to fix me up in business.’ Even in prison, Ronnie was fattening his jailer for the pot.
I am in Chicago, supporting a lacklustre campaign to sell British goods abroad. The British Consul General, with whom I am staying, hands me a telegram. It is from our Ambassador in Jakarta telling me that Ronnie is in prison and will I buy him out? I promise to pay whatever needs to be paid. To my alarm, it is only a few hundred. Ronnie must be down on his luck.
From the Bezirksgefängnis in Zurich, where he has been imprisoned for hotel fraud, Ronnie telephones me, reversing the charges. ‘Son? It’s your old man.’ What can I do for you, Father? ‘You can get me out of this damned jail, son. It’s all a misunderstanding. These boys just won’t look at the facts.’ How much? No answer. Just an actor’s gulp before a drowning voice delivers the punch line: ‘I can’t do any more prison, son.’ Then the sobs that as usual go through me like slow knives.
I asked my two surviving aunts. They spoke the way Ronnie spoke when he was young: in light, unconscious Dorset accents that I really like. How did Ronnie take it, that first stretch? How did it affect him? Who was he before prison? Who was he after it? But the aunts are not historians, they’re sisters. They love Ronnie, and prefer not to think beyond their love. The scene they remember best was Ronnie shaving on the morning of the day the verdict was to be announced at Winchester Assizes. He had defended himself from the dock the previous day and was certain he would be home free that evening. It was the first time the aunts were allowed to watch him shave. But the only answer I get from them is in their eyes and dropped words: ‘It was terrible. Just terrible.’ They are talking about the shame as if it were yesterday rather than seventy years ago.
Sixty-something years back I had asked my mother, Olive, the same question. Unlike the aunts, who prefer to keep their memories to themselves, Olive was a tap you couldn’t turn off. From the moment of our reunion at Ipswich railway station, she talked about Ronnie non-stop. She talked about his sexuality long before I had sorted out mine, and for ease of reference gave me a tattered hardback copy of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis as a map to guide me through her husband’s appetites before and after jail.
‘Changed, dear? In prison? Not a bit of it! You were totally unchanged. You’d lost weight, of course - well, you would. Prison food isn’t meant to be nice.’ And then the image that will never leave me, not least because she seemed unaware of what she was saying: ‘And you did have this silly habit of stopping in front of doors and waiting at attention with your head down till I opened them for you. They were perfectly ordinary doors, not locked or anything, but you obviously weren’t expecting to be able to open them for yourself.’
Why did Olive refer to Ronnie as you? You meaning he, but subconsciously recruiting me to be his surrogate, which by the time of her death was what I had become. There is an audiotape that Olive made for my brother Tony, all about her life with Ronnie. I still can’t bear to play it, so all I’ve ever heard is scraps. On the tape she describes how Ronnie used to beat her up, which, according to Olive, was what prompted her to bolt. Ronnie’s violence was not news to me because he had made a habit of beating up his second wife as well: so often and so purposefully and coming home at such odd hours of the night to do it that, seized by a chivalrous impulse, I appointed myself her ridiculous protector, sleeping on a mattress in front of her bedroom door and clutching a golf iron so that Ronnie would have to reckon with me before he got at her.
Would I really have struck him on his mortgaged head? Might I indeed have killed him, and followed in his footsteps to prison? Or just given him a hug and wished him goodnight? I’ll never know, but I have played the possibilities in my memory so often that all of them are true.
Certainly Ronnie beat me up, too, but only a few times and not with much conviction. It was the shaping up that was the scary part: the lowering and readying of the shoulders, the resetting of the jaw. And when I was grown up Ronnie tried to sue me, which I suppose is violence in disguise. He had watched a television documentary of my life and decided there was an implicit slander in my failure to mention that I owed everything to him.
How did Olive and Ronnie first get together? I asked her this question in my Krafft-Ebing period, not long after that first remembered hug at Ipswich station. ‘Through your Uncle Alec, dear,’ she replied. She was referring to her estranged brother, her senior by twenty-five years. Their parents were both long dead, so Uncle Alec, a grandee of Poole, Member of Parliament and fabled local preacher, was her effective father. Like Olive, he was thin and bony and very tall, but also vain, a natty dresser with a great sense of his social importance. Appointed to present a cup to a local football team, Uncle Alec took Olive along with him, in the manner of one schooling a future princess in the exercise of her public duties.
Ronnie was the team’s centre forward. Where else could he possibly play? As Uncle Alec moved along the line, shaking hands with each player, Olive trailed behind him, pinning a badge to each proud breast. But when she pinned one to Ronnie’s he fell dramatically to his knees, complaining she had pierced him to the heart, which he was clutching with both hands. Uncle Alec, who on all known evidence was a pompous arse, loftily condoned the horseplay, and Ronnie with impressive meekness enquired whether he might call at the great house on Sunday afternoons to pay his respects - not to Olive, naturally, who was socially far above him - but to an Irish housemaid with whom he had struck up an acquaintance. Uncle Alec graciously gave his consent and Ronnie, under cover of wooing the maid, seduced Olive.
‘I was so lonely, darling. And you were such a ball of fire.’ The fire, of course, was Ronnie, not me.
Uncle Alec was my first secret source and I blew him sky high. It was to Alec that I had secretly written on my twenty-first birthday - Alec Glassey, MP, care of the House of Commons, Private - to enquire whether his sister, my mother, was alive and, if so, where she might be found. Glassey had long ceased to be an MP, but miraculously the Commons authorities forwarded my letter. I had asked Ronnie the same question when I was younger, but he had only frowned and shaken his head, so after a few more shots I gave up. In a two-line scrawl Uncle Alec advised me that I would find her address on the attached piece of paper. A condition of this information was that I should never tell ‘the person concerned’ where I had it from. Stimulated by the injunction, I blurted out the truth to Olive within moments of our meeting.
‘Then we must be grateful to him, dear,’ she said, and that was all.
Or it should have been all, except that forty years later in New Mexico, and several years after my mother’s death, my brother Tony informed me that on his twenty-first birthday, two years before mine, he, too, had written to Alec, had taken the train to Olive, hugged her on the No. 1 platform and probably, thanks to his height, achieved a better grasp than I had. And he had debriefed her.
So why had Tony not told me all this? Why hadn’t I told him? Why had Olive told neither of us about the other? Why had Alec tried to keep us all apart? The answer is fear of Ronnie, which for all of us was like fear of life itself. His reach, psychological and physical, and his terrible charm were inescapable. He was a walking Rolodex of connections. When one of his women was discovered to be consoling herself with a lover, Ronnie went to work like a one-man war room. Within an hour he had a line to the wretched man’s employer, his bank manager, his landlord and his wife’s father. Each was recruited as an agent of destruction.
And what Ronnie had done to a helpless erring husband he could do to all of us tenfold. Ronnie wrecked as he created. Every time I am moved to admire him, I remember his victims. His own mother, freshly bereaved, the sobbing executrix of his father’s estate; his second wife’s mother, also widowed, also in dazed possession of her late husband’s fortune: Ronnie robbed them both, depriving them of their husbands’ savings and the proper heirs of their inheritance. Dozens, scores of others, all trusting, all by Ronnie’s noble standards deserving of his protection: conned, robbed, ripped off by their knight errant. How did he explain this to himself, if at all? The racehorses, parties, women and Bentleys that furnished his other life while he was gulling money out of people so helpless with love for him that they couldn’t say no? Did Ronnie ever count the cost of being God’s chosen boy?
I keep few letters, and most of Ronnie’s to me were so awful I destroyed them almost before I read them: begging letters from America, India, Singapore and Indonesia; hortatory letters forgiving me my trespasses and urging me to love him, pray for him, make the best use of the advantages he had lavished on me, and send him money; bullying demands that I repay the cost of my education; and doom-laden prognostications of his imminent death. I don’t regret having thrown them away; sometimes I wish I could throw away the memory of them, too. Occasionally, despite my best efforts, a shred of his inextinguishable past turns up to tease me: a page of one of his typed letters on flimsy airmail paper, for instance, advising me of some crazy scheme he wants me to ‘bring to the Attention of your Advisors with a View to Early Investment’. Or an old business adversary of Ronnie writes to me, always tenderly, always grateful to have known him, even if the experience proved costly.
Some years back, dickering on the brink of an autobiography and frustrated by the poverty of collateral information, I hired a pair of detectives, one thin, one fat, both recommended by a rugged London solicitor, and both good eaters. Go out into the world, I said to them airily. Be my guests. Find the living witnesses and the written record and bring me a factual account of myself and my family and my father and I will reward you. I’m a liar, I explained. Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as a novelist. As a maker of fictions, I invent versions of myself, never the real thing, if it exists.
So what I’ll do is this, I said. I’ll let my imaginative memory rip on the left-hand page, and I’ll put your factual record on the right-hand page, unchanged and unadorned. And in that way my readers will see for themselves to what extent an old writer’s memory is the whore of his imagination. We all reinvent our pasts, I said, but writers are in a class of their own. Even when they know the truth, it’s never enough for them. I directed them to Ronnie’s dates and names and places and suggested they dig out the court records. I imagined them hunting down vital sources while there were still a few around, former secretaries, prison officers and policemen. I told them to do the same with my school record, my army record, and, since I had several times been the subject of official security checks, the assessments of my trustworthiness by the services we used to regard as secret. I urged them to stop at nothing in their search for me. I told them about my father’s scams, domestic and foreign, everything I could remember: how he attempted to con the prime ministers of Singapore and Malaysia into a dubious football-pools operation and came within a whisker of bringing it off. But it was the same whisker that always let him down.
I told them about his little ‘extra families’ and mistress-mothers, keepers of the flame, who, in his own words to me, were always there to cook him a sausage if he dropped by. I gave them the names of a couple of the women I knew about, and an address or two, and the names of the children - whose is anybody’s guess. I told them about Ronnie’s war service, which consisted of using every trick in the book not to do any, including standing in parliamentary by-elections under such rousing banners as ‘Independent Progressive’, which obliged the army to release him to exercise his democratic rights. And how, even while he was being trained, he kept a couple of courtiers and a secretary or two on hand, billeted in local hotels, so that he could pursue his legitimate business of war profiteer and trader in shortages. In the immediate post-war years, it is my conviction, Ronnie improved upon his army record by awarding himself the alias of Colonel Cornhill, by which name he was well known in the shadier corners of the West End. When my half-sister Charlotte was playing in a film about the notorious gangland family in east London called The Krays, she consulted the eldest brother, Charlie, in order to collect material for the part. Over a nice cup of tea, Charlie Kray dug out the family photo album, and there was Ronnie with an arm round the two younger brothers.
I told them about the night I checked into the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen and was at once invited to visit the manager. I assumed my fame had gone ahead of me. It hadn’t, but Ronnie’s had. He was wanted by the Danish police. And there they were, two of them, upright like schoolboys in correction chairs against one wall. Ronnie, they said, had entered Copenhagen illegally from the United States with the assistance of a couple of Scandinavian pilots whom he had fleeced at poker in a New York dive. Instead of cash, he had suggested they give him a free ride to Denmark, which they duly did, spiriting him through customs and immigration when they landed. Did I by any chance, the Danish policemen enquired, happen to know where they could find my father? I didn’t. And, thank God, I really didn’t. I’d last heard of Ronnie a year earlier, when he had tiptoed out of Britain in order to escape a creditor, or arrest, or the mob, or all three.
So there was another lead for my detectives, I told them: let’s find out what Ronnie was running away from in Britain, and why he had to get out of America the hard way, too. I told them about Ronnie’s racehorses, which he kept going even when he was an undischarged bankrupt: horses in Newmarket, in Ireland and at Maisons-Laffitte, outside Paris. I gave them the names of trainers and jockeys and told them how Lester Piggott had ridden for him while Lester was still an apprentice; and how Gordon Richards had advised him on his buying. And how I had once come upon young Lester in the back of a horse trailer, lounging in the straw in Ronnie’s silks, reading a boys’ comic before the race. Ronnie’s racehorses were named after his beloved children: Dato, God help us, for David and Tony; Tummy Tunmers, which combined the name of his house with his affection for his own stomach; Prince Rupert - the only horse that showed any form - after my half-brother, Rupert; and Rose Sang, in arch reference to my half-sister Charlotte’s red hair. And how in my late teens I used to go to race meetings in Ronnie’s stead after he had been warned off the course for not paying his gambling debts. And how when Prince Rupert to everyone’s amazement took a place in - was it the Cesarewitch? - I returned to London on the same train as the bookies Ronnie hadn’t paid, lugging a briefcase stuffed with banknotes from bets I’d placed for him around the course.
I told my detectives about Ronnie’s Court, as I had always secretly called it: the motley of genteel ex-prisoners who formed the nucleus of his corporate family - ex-schoolmasters, ex-lawyers, ex-everything. And how one of them, called Reg, took me aside after Ronnie’s death and tearfully gave me what he called the bottom line. Reg had done prison for Ronnie, he said. And he wasn’t alone in that distinction. So had George-Percival, another courtier. So had Eric and Arthur. All four had taken the rap for Ronnie at one time or another, rather than see the Court robbed of its guiding genius. But that wasn’t Reg’s point. His point, David - through his tears - was that they were a bunch of bloody idiots who had let Ronnie con them every time. And they still were. And if Ronnie rose from his grave today and asked Reg to do another stretch for him, Reg would do it, the same as George-Percival and Eric and Arthur would. Because where Ronnie was concerned - and Reg was happy to admit this - the whole lot of them were soft in the head.
‘We was all bent, son,’ Reg added in a last respectful epitaph to a friend. ‘But your dad was very, very bent indeed.’
I told the detectives how Ronnie had stood as a Liberal parliamentary candidate for Yarmouth in the general election of 1950, taking the Court with him, Liberals to a man. And how the Conservative candidate’s agent met Ronnie by appointment in a private place and, fearful that Ronnie was going to split the vote in Labour’s favour, warned him that the Tories would leak his prison record and one or two other tidbits about him if he didn’t stand down, which Ronnie, after consulting a plenary session of the Court, of which I was an ex-officio member, refused to do. Was Uncle Alec the Tories’ Deep Throat? Had he sent them one of his secret letters exhorting them not to reveal the source? I have always suspected so. In any event, the Tories did exactly as they had threatened. They leaked Ronnie’s prison record, and Ronnie as predicted split the vote and Labour won.
Perhaps by way of friendly warning to my detectives, or as a bit of a boast, I impressed upon them the extent of Ronnie’s network of connections, and the lines he had to the most unlikely people. In the late forties and early fifties, his golden years, Ronnie could throw parties at his house in Chalfont St Peter which included directors of Arsenal football club, Permanent Under-Secretaries, champion jockeys, film stars, radio stars, snooker kings, ex-lord mayors of London, the entire cast of the Crazy Gang then playing at the Victoria Palace, not to mention a handpicked selection of lovelies from wherever he got them, and the Australian or West Indian Test cricket teams if they were visiting. Don Bradman came, and so did most of the great and good players of the post-war years. To which should be added a choir of leading judges and barristers of the day and a troop of ranking Scotland Yard police officers in off-duty blazers with crests on the pocket.
Ronnie with his early education in police methods could spot a flexible copper a mile off. He knew at a glance what they ate and drank and what made them happy, how far they would bend and where they would snap. It was one of his pleasures to extend police protection to his friends, so that if someone’s son, dead drunk, rolled his parents’ Riley into a ditch, it was Ronnie who received the first frantic phone call from the child’s mother, Ronnie again who waved his wand and caused the blood tests to be muddled in the police laboratory, to the profuse apologies of the prosecution for wasting Your Worship’s valuable time: with the further happy outcome that Ronnie notched up yet another favour to his account in the great Promise Bank where he kept his only assets.
In briefing my detectives I was, of course, beating the air. No detective on earth could have found what I was looking for, and two were no better than one. Ten thousand pounds and several excellent meals later, all they had to offer was a bunch of press clippings about old bankruptcies and the Yarmouth election, and a pile of useless company records. No trial records, no retired jailers, no golden-bullet witnesses or smoking gun. Not a single mention of Ronnie’s trial at Winchester Assizes, where by his own account he defended himself brilliantly against a young advocate named Norman Birkett, later Sir Norman, then Lord, who served as a British judge at the Nuremberg trials.
From prison - this much Ronnie told me himself - he had written to Birkett, and, in the sporting spirit dear to both of them, congratulated the great barrister on his performance. And Birkett was flattered to receive such a letter from a poor prisoner who was paying his debt to society, and wrote back. And thus a correspondence developed in which Ronnie pledged his lifelong determination to study for the law. And as soon as he came out of prison he enrolled himself as a student at Gray’s Inn. It was on the strength of this heroic act that he bought himself the wig and gown that I still see trailing after him in their cardboard box as he criss-crosses the globe in his search for El Dorado.
My mother, Olive, crept out of our lives when I was five and my brother Tony was seven and both of us were fast asleep. In the creaking jargon of the secret world I later entered, her departure was a well-planned exfiltration operation, executed in accordance with the best principles of need-to-know security. The conspirators selected a night when my father, Ronnie, was billed to come home from London late or not at all. This was not hard. Fresh from the deprivations of prison, Ronnie had set himself up in business in the West End, where he was diligently making up for lost time. What kind of business we could only guess, but its rise had been mercurial.
Ronnie had barely drawn his first breath of free air before he had gathered to himself the scattered nucleus of his Court. At the same dizzy speed, we abandoned the humble brick house in St Albans to which my grandfather with much frowning and finger-wagging had conducted us upon Ronnie’s release, and established ourselves in the riding-school-and-limousine suburb of Rickmansworth, less than an hour’s drive from London’s most expensive fleshpots. With the Court in attendance we had wintered in splendour at the Kulm Hotel in St Moritz. In Rickmansworth our bedroom cupboards were stuffed with new toys on an Arab scale. Weekends were one long adult revel while Tony and I persuaded riotous uncles to kick footballs with us, and gazed at the bookless walls of our nursery while we listened to the music from downstairs. Among the less probable visitors of those days was Learie Constantine, later Sir Learie and later still Lord Constantine, arguably the greatest West Indian cricketer of all time. It is one of the many paradoxes of Ronnie’s nature that he liked to be seen in the company of people of brown or black skin, which in those days made him a rarity. Learie Constantine played ‘French cricket’ with us and we loved him dearly. I have a memory of a jovial domestic ceremony in which, without benefit of priest, he was formally inducted as either my godfather or my brother’s, neither of us seems sure which.
‘But where did the money come from?’ I asked my mother at one of the many debriefings that attended our reunion. She had no idea. Business was either beneath her or over her head. The rougher it got, the further she stayed away from it. Ronnie was crooked, she said, but wasn’t everyone in business crooked?
The house from which Olive made her covert exit was a mock-Tudor mansion called Hazel Cottage. In darkness, the long, descending garden and diamond-leaded windows gave it the appearance of a forest hunting-lodge. I imagine a slim new moon, or none. All through the interminable day of her escape, I see her engaged in surreptitious preparations, filling her white hide Harrods suitcase with operational necessities - a warm pullover, East Anglia will be freezing; where in heaven’s name did I leave my driving licence? - casting nervous glances at her St Moritz gold watch while maintaining her composure towards her children, the cook, the cleaning woman, the gardener and the German nanny, Annaliese.
Olive no longer trusts any of us. Her sons are Ronnie’s wholly owned subsidiaries. Annaliese, she suspects, has been sleeping with the enemy. Olive’s close friend Mabel lives only a few miles away with her parents in a flat overlooking Moor Park Golf Club, but Mabel is no more privy to the escape plan than is Annaliese. Mabel has had two abortions in three years after becoming pregnant by a man she refuses to identify, and Olive is beginning to smell a rat. In the mock-raftered drawing room, as she tiptoes through it with her white suitcase, stands one of the earliest pre-war television sets, an upended mahogany coffin with a tiny screen that shows fast-moving spots and just occasionally the misted features of a man in a dinner jacket. It is switched off. Muzzled. She will never watch it again.
‘Why didn’t you take us with you?’ I asked her at one debriefing.
‘Because you’d have come after us, darling,’ Olive replied, meaning as usual not me, but Ronnie. ‘You wouldn’t have rested till you got your precious boys back.’
Besides, she said, there was the all-important question of our education. Ronnie was so ambitious for his sons that somehow, more by crook than by hook but never mind, he would get us into classy schools. Olive would never have been able to manage that. Well, would she, darling?
I can’t describe Olive well. As a child, I didn’t know her, and as an adult I didn’t understand her. Of her abilities, I know as little as I know of anything else about her. Was she kind-hearted but weak? Was she tortured by her separation from her two growing first-born children, or was she a woman of no particularly deep emotions who was simply dragged through life by other people’s decisions? Did she have latent talents crying to come to the surface, but never succeeding? In any one of these identities I would willingly recognize myself, but I don’t know which, if any, to choose.
The white hide suitcase sits today in my house in London and has become an object of intense speculation to me. As with all major works of art, there is tension in its immobility. Will it suddenly leap off again, leaving no forwarding address? Outwardly, it is a well-to-do bride’s honeymoon suitcase with a good brand name. The two uniformed doormen who in my memory stand forever before the glass doors of the Kulm Hotel in St Moritz, brushing the snow from guests’ boots with a dramatic flourish, would immediately identify its owner as a member of the tipping classes. But when I am tired and my memory is out foraging for itself, the interior of the suitcase breathes a heavy sexuality.
Partly, the tattered pink silk lining is the reason: a skimpy petticoat waiting to be ripped off. But there is also somewhere in my head a hazily remembered image of carnal flurry - of a bedroom skirmish I have intruded upon when I am very young - and pink is its colour. Was this the time I saw Ronnie and Annaliese making love? Or Ronnie and Olive? Or Olive and Annaliese? Or all three of them together? Or none of them, except in my dreams? And does this pseudo-memory portray some kind of childish erotic paradise from which I was shut out once Olive had packed her bag and left?
As an historical artefact, the suitcase is beyond price. It is the only known object that bears Olive’s initials from her Ronnie period: O.M.C. for Olive Moore Cornwell, printed in black beneath the sweated leather handle. Whose sweat? Olive’s? Or the sweat of her fellow conspirator and rescuer, a gingery, irascible land agent who was also the driver of her getaway car? I have an idea that, like Olive, her rescuer was married, and, like Olive, had children. If that’s so, were they, too, fast asleep? As the professional intimate of landed gentry, her rescuer also had class, whereas Ronnie in Olive’s judgement had none. Olive never forgave Ronnie for marrying above himself.
All through her later life she hammered this theme, until I began to understand that Ronnie’s social inferiority was the fig leaf of dignity which she clutched to herself while she continued to trail helplessly after him in the years of their supposed estrangement. She let him take her out to lunches in the West End, listening to his fantasized accounts of his prodigious wealth, though little if any of it ever reached her, and after the coffee and the brandy - or so I picture it - yielded to him in some safe house before he scurried off to make another fantasy million. By keeping open the wounds that Ronnie’s low breeding had inflicted on her, by deriding to herself his vulgarities of speech and lapses of social delicacy, she was able to blame him for everything and herself for nothing, except her stupid acquiescence.
Yet Olive was anything but stupid. She had a witty, barbed and lucid tongue. Her long, clear sentences were print-ready, her letters cogent, rhythmical and amusing. In my presence, she was painfully well spoken, like Mrs Thatcher halfway through her elocution course. But in other people’s presence, I learned recently from one who knew her better than I did, she was a mynah bird, instantly adopting the vocal effects of whoever she was with, even if it took her all the way down the social scale. And yes, I too have an ear for voices. So perhaps that’s a bit I got from her, for Ronnie had none. And I love to mimic them, and get them on to the page. But what she read, if anything at all, I’ve no more idea than I have of her genetic contribution to my existence. Looking back, listening to her other children, I know there was a mother there to be learned. But I never learned her, and perhaps I didn’t want to.
In computer-dating terms, it has always seemed to me, Ronnie and Olive were nevertheless remarkably well matched. But while Olive was willing to be defined by whoever claimed to love her, Ronnie was a five-star conman endowed with the unfortunate gift of awakening love in men and women equally. Olive’s resentment of my father’s social origins did not stop at the principal offender. Ronnie’s father - my own revered grandfather, Frank, ex-Mayor of Poole, Freemason, teetotaller, preacher, icon of our family probity, no less - was, according to Olive, as bent as Ronnie. It was Frank who had put Ronnie up to his first scam, had financed it, remote-controlled it, then kept his head down when Ronnie took the fall. She even found a bad word for Ronnie’s grandfather, whom I remember as a white-bearded D. H. Lawrence lookalike riding a tricycle at ninety. Where on earth I was supposed to stand in this wholesale condemnation of our male line remained unsaid. But then I’d had the education, hadn’t I, darling? I’d had the language and manners of respectable people beaten into me.
There’s a family anecdote about Ronnie that remains unverified, but I would like to believe it because it speaks for the good heart in Ronnie that so often, and so frustratingly, defied his detractors.
Ronnie is on the run but hasn’t yet skipped England. The fraud charges are so pressing that the British police have launched a manhunt. Amid the hue and cry, an old business pal of Ronnie’s has died suddenly and must be buried. In the hope that Ronnie will attend the funeral, the police stake it out. Plainclothes detectives mingle with the mourners, but Ronnie is not among them. Next day, a member of the grieving family goes to tend the new grave. Ronnie is standing alone at the graveside.
Now move to the eighties, and this isn’t just a family tale, it happened in broad daylight in the presence of my British publisher, my literary agent and my wife.
I’m on a book tour in Southern Australia. Luncheon in the great marquee. I sit at a trestle table, my wife and my publisher beside me, my agent looking on. I’m signing my latest novel, A Perfect Spy, which contains a not very veiled portrait of Ronnie, whose life I have touched on in my after-lunch speech. A lady of age in a wheelchair rolls energetically past the queue, and tells me with some heat that I’ve got it completely wrong about Ronnie being in prison in Hong Kong. She was living with him all the time he was in the colony, so he couldn’t possibly have gone to prison, or she’d have noticed, wouldn’t she?
While I’m still measuring my response - for instance, to the effect that I had recently had a friendly chat with Ronnie’s Hong Kong jailer - a second lady of similar age bowls up.
‘Utter bloody nonsense!’ she thunders. ‘He was living with me in Bangkok and only commuting to Hong Kong!’
I assure them that they are both probably right.
You will not be surprised to read then that in low moments, like many sons of many fathers, I ask myself which bits of me still belong to Ronnie, and how much of me is mine. Is there really a big difference, I wonder, between the man who sits at his desk and dreams up scams on the blank page (me), and the man who puts on a clean shirt every morning and, with nothing in his pocket but imagination, sallies forth to con his victim (Ronnie)?
Ronnie the conman could spin you a story out of the air, sketch in a character who did not exist, and paint a golden opportunity when there wasn’t one. He could blind you with bogus detail or helpfully clarify a non-existent knotty point if you weren’t quick enough on the uptake to grasp the technicalities of his con first time round. He could withhold a great secret on grounds of confidentiality, then whisper it to your ear alone because he has decided to trust you.
And if all that isn’t part and parcel of the writer’s art, tell me what is.
It was Ronnie’s misfortune to be an anachronism in his own lifetime. In the twenties when he set out in business, an unscrupulous trader could bankrupt himself in one town, and next day raise credit in another fifty miles away. But as time went by, communications began to catch up with Ronnie the way they caught up with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I am sure he was deeply shocked when Singapore Special Branch confronted him with his British police record. And shocked again when, summarily deported to Indonesia, he was put behind bars for currency offences and gun-running. And more shocked still when a few years later the Swiss police dragged him out of his hotel bedroom in the Dolder Grand hotel in Zurich, and banged him up in the district jail. Reading recently how the gentlemen of FIFA were whisked from their beds in the Baur au Lac in Zurich and distributed to selected prison cells around the town, I see Ronnie forty-odd years ago suffering the same humiliation at the same hour at the hands of the same Swiss police.
Grand hotels are the conman’s catnip. Until that dawn in Zurich, Ronnie had stayed in any number of them and his system had never failed: take the best suite the best hotel has to offer, entertain lavishly, endear yourself to the doormen, headwaiters and above all the concierges, i.e. tip them handsomely and often. Make phone calls all over the world and when the hotel presents its first bill, say you have passed it to your people for settlement. Or, if you are playing the long game, delay the first bill then settle it, but nothing thereafter.
As soon as you sense you’re outstaying your welcome, pack a light suitcase, slip the concierge a twenty or a fifty, and tell him you’ve got pressing business out of town which may detain you for the night. Or if he’s that kind of concierge, give him a fat wink and say you have an obligation to a lady friend - oh, and will he kindly make sure your suite is safely locked because of all the valuable kit it’s got in it? - having already made sure that whatever valuable kit you’ve got, if any, is already in your light suitcase. And maybe, for extra cover, you give the concierge your golf clubs to look after by way of reassurance, but only if needs must, because you love your golf.
But that dawn raid at the Dolder told Ronnie that the game was up. And today, forget it. They have your credit card details. They know where your children go to school.
Might Ronnie with his proven powers of deception have made a spymaster? True, when he deceived people he also deceived himself, although that wouldn’t necessarily disqualify him. But if he possessed a secret - his own or anyone else’s - he was positively uncomfortable until he had shared it, which would certainly have presented a problem.
Show business? After all, he’d made a good fist of looking over a major Berlin film studio under the pretext of representing myself and Paramount Pictures, so why stop there? And Hollywood, as we all know, has a well-attested habit of taking conmen to its bosom.
Or how about actor? Didn’t he love the long mirror? Hadn’t he spent his whole life pretending to be people he wasn’t?
But Ronnie never wanted to be a star. He wanted to be Ronnie, a cosmos of one.
As to becoming a writer of his own fictions, forget it. He didn’t envy my literary notoriety. He owned it.
It is 1963. I have just arrived in New York on my first ever visit to the United States. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is riding at the top of the charts. My American publisher escorts me to the 21 Club for a grand dinner. As the maître d’ shows us to our table, I see Ronnie seated in a corner.
For years we have been estranged. I had no idea he was in America, but he is, and twelve feet away, with a brandy-and-ginger at his elbow. How on earth did he get here? Easily. He called up my soft-hearted American publisher and plucked at his heart strings. He played the Irish card. One look at my publisher’s name tells him he is of Irish origin.
We ask Ronnie to join us at our table. Humbly, he accepts, bringing his brandy-and-ginger with him; but only for a quick drink, he insists, then he’ll leave us to ourselves. He is sweet and proud and pats my arm, and tells me with tears in his eyes that he hasn’t been a bad father, has he, son, and we’ve done all right together, haven’t we, then? Yes, yes, we’ve done fine together, Dad, just fine, I agree.
Then Jack, my publisher, who’s a proud father as well as being Irish, says why doesn’t Ronnie finish whatever he’s drinking and let’s have a bottle of champagne. So we do, and Ronnie raises his glass and drinks to our book. Note the our. Then Jack says, hell Ronnie, why don’t you just sit here and eat with us too? So Ronnie lets himself be persuaded, and orders himself a nice mixed grill.
Out on the pavement we have our obligatory bear-hug, and he weeps, which he does a lot: big, sobbing shrugs. I weep too, and ask him whether he’s all right for money, to which amazingly he replies that he is. Then he gives me some advice for life, in case I’m letting our book’s success go to our head:
‘You may be a successful writer, son,’ he says through more sobs, ‘but you’re not a celebrity.’
And having left me with this incomprehensible warning, he sets off into the night without saying where he’s going, which I guess means he has a lady on the go, because he almost always has.
Months afterwards, I’m able to piece together the back-story to this encounter. Ronnie was on the run, with no money and nowhere to live. However, New York City’s real estate agents were offering a month’s free accommodation to first-time tenants in new developments. Under different names Ronnie was flat-hopping: a free month here, a free month there, and so far they hadn’t caught up with him, but God help him when they did. It could only have been out of pride that he turned down my offer of money, because he was desperate and had already touched my elder brother for the better part of his savings.
On the day after our dinner at the 21 Club, he had called up the sales department of my American publishing house, introduced himself as my father - and of course as a close friend of my publisher - ordered a couple of hundred copies of our book, charged them to the author’s account, and signed them in his own name for handing around as his business card.
I have by now received a score of such books, with the owners’ requests that I add my signature to Ronnie’s. The standard version reads ‘Signed by the Author’s Father’, with an extra large F for Father. And mine in return reads, ‘Signed by the Author’s Father’s Son’, with an extra large S for Son.
But try being Ronnie for a moment, as I have done too often. Try standing alone on the streets of New York, stony-broke. You’ve tapped whoever you can tap, milked your contacts dry. In England you’re on the Wanted list, and you’re on the Wanted list here in New York. You daren’t show your passport, you’re using false names to hop between apartments you can’t pay for, and all that stands between you and perdition is your animal wit and a double-breasted pinstripe from Berman of Savile Row that you home-press every evening. It’s the kind of situation they dream up for you at spy school: ‘Now let’s see how you talk your way out of this one.’ Allowing for the odd lapse now and then, Ronnie would have passed that test with flying colours.
The ship that Ronnie always dreamed of came home shortly after his death, in one of those drowsy Dickensian law courts where complex disputes about money are thrashed out over a very long time. For caution’s sake, I will name the afflicted London suburb Cudlip, because it’s entirely possible that the same legal battle is rumbling to this day, just as it had rumbled through the last twenty-odd years of Ronnie’s life, then rumbled without him for another two.
The facts of the case are simplicity itself. Ronnie had befriended Cudlip’s local council, notably its planning committee. How this had come about is easily imagined. They were fellow Baptists, or fellow Masons, or cricketers, or snooker players. Or they were married men in their prime who, until they met Ronnie, had never tasted the nocturnal pleasures of the West End. Perhaps they also looked forward to a slice of what Ronnie had assured them would be a big cake.
However it had come about, there was no question in law or anywhere else that Cudlip Council had signed over to one of Ronnie’s eighty-three penniless companies the authorization to erect a hundred desirable houses in the middle of Cudlip’s green belt. And no sooner had they done this than Ronnie, who had bought the land for peanuts on the understanding that it could never be built on, sold it complete with planning consent to a large construction company for a large sum of money. Champagne flowed, the Court was jubilant. Ronnie had pulled off the deal of a lifetime. My brother Tony and I would never want for anything again.
And as so often in his life, Ronnie was nearly right, had it not been for the citizens of Cudlip who, roused to action by their local newspaper, declared with one voice that any attempt to build houses or anything else on their precious green belt - their football field, their tennis courts, their children’s playground, their picnic area - would take place over their dead bodies. And such was their passion that in no time they had obtained a court order leaving Ronnie clutching a signed contract with the construction company, but not a penny piece of their money.
Ronnie was as outraged as the citizens of Cudlip. Like them, he had never known such perfidy. It wasn’t the money, he insisted, it was the principle. He rallied a team of lawyers, nothing but the best. They concluded he had a strong case, and agreed to take it on. No win, no fee. The Cudlip land thereafter became the gold standard of our faith in Ronnie. For the next twenty years and more, any temporary setback would be as nothing once the great day of reckoning came. Ronnie could be writing to me from Dublin, or Hong Kong, or Penang, or Timbuctoo, the mantra with its strange capital letters never varied: ‘One day, Son, and it may well come After I am Judged, British Justice will Prevail.’
And sure enough, within months of his death, justice did indeed prevail. I was not in court to hear the verdict. My lawyer had advised me not to display a flicker of interest in Ronnie’s estate lest I be stuck with its enormous debts. The courtroom was packed, according to my sources. The barristers’ benches were particularly full. Three judges were sitting, but one spoke for all, and his language was so convoluted that for a while no layman could catch his drift.
Then gradually the news seeped through. The court had found for the plaintiff: for Ronnie. Outright. The jackpot. No ifs or buts. No on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand. Ronnie from the grave had won the slam-dunk victory that he had always insisted would be his: a People’s victory over twerps and airy-fairies, for which read unbelievers and intellectuals, the posthumous vindication of all his striving.
Then a quiet falls. Amid the rejoicing a clerk has once more called the court to order. The handshaking and backslapping give way to a collective unease. A barrister who has not so far addressed the court craves the attention of their Lordships. I have my own arbitrary picture of him. He is puffy and pompous and pimply and his wig is too small for his head. He represents the Crown, he tells their Lordships. Specifically, he represents Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue, which he describes as ‘a preferential creditor’ in the matter upon which their Lordships have just passed judgement. And to be precise, and not to waste their Lordships’ precious time, he would like, with infinite respect, to petition that the entire sum awarded to the plaintiff’s estate be sequestered in order to defray, if only in small part, the far larger sums, reaching back over a great number of years, owed by the deceased to Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue.
Ronnie is dead, and I am revisiting Vienna in order to breathe the city air while I write him into the semi-autobiographical novel I am at last free to ponder. Not the Sacher again; I have a dread that the waiters will remember Ronnie crashing down on to the table and me half carrying him out. My plane into Schwechat is delayed, and the reception desk of the small hotel that I have chosen at random is in the charge of an elderly night porter. He looks on silently as I fill in the registration form. Then he speaks in soft, venerable Viennese German.
‘Your father was a great man,’ he says. ‘You treated him disgracefully.’