Vale Posgate

Posgate 14It was very sad news that my old friend Ian Posgate died last week.

Personally, I am not very good at being told what to do by people I regard as less clever than me; such instructions tend to bring out the anarchist in me. As soon as I met Ian, it became apparent that I was a mere amateur in this regard: Ian had elevated this sort of insubordination into an art form. And since Ian was markedly clever, he had plenty of grist for his mill.  It brought him considerable success, and also some hurdles.

I first came across him some 30 years ago, after his first marriage had collapsed.  He took up with my lovely friend Sally, who lived in the flat above me in Notting Hill.  Ian would cheerfully wander down to the local newsagent on a Sunday morning in pyjamas and dressing gown, delightfully oblivious to more conventional social mores. Not only was he great fun, but he had very wide interests, and we became friends. Happily, he and Sally soon got married.

It was only after I got to know him that I discovered that he was really quite famous: dubbed “Goldfinger” by the press as by far the most successful underwriter at Lloyds. His success was built in part, I think, on his whole approach to life.  He would make snap judgements about everything from politics to art, business, and people and those initial judgements were usually pretty accurate. And he would act on them.  But he was never tied down to those judgements: if his ever-sensitive nose smelled anything on the wind of change, he would promptly make the appropriate adjustments.  That being his method, he was ever keen to share intelligence with people from all walks of life.

I was a solicitor in London in those days, and then acted for Ian in a number of matters. It is dangerous, perhaps, for a lawyer to act for a friend, but acting for Ian was fun. He was very quick at understanding and evaluating a legal landscape, and fearless in accepting advice that more cautious souls would have baulked at.  One day he rang me up, and said he needed my urgent help.  Straight away. Oh really, why was that? A bunch of squatters had moved into a cottage on his farm in Henley he had earmarked for a new farm manager to move into that weekend. Decent farm managers were hard to come by. He could not afford to wait until possession proceedings ran their course. He needed the cottage back straight away. I explained that I was not a property lawyer, but he was having none of that. “Come on, Robert!”, he said. Ian had theories. One was that lawyers, like doctors and other professionals, come into three categories. Worthwhile, average and hopeless. He had lumped me into the first category. “All right”, I said. “Come and pick me up in your car from my office. But stop on the way to pick up a hammer and some nails from the ironmongers”.

Now, someone with less sound judgement than Ian might have hesitated. What was I planning?  Ian would have known that it would not be doing anything violent.  While Ian was on his way doing that, I issued a writ in the High Court, with a dozen copies, naming “Persons unknown” as defendants and we then drove out to Henley.

When we got to the cottage, the squatters were in evidence. A van. An old motorbike. They were kids, really. I took one of the writs, and noisily nailed it to the front door.  They walked up and asked what we were doing. Ian introduced himself, and I served several of the writs.

“No,” said their leader. “You have got this all wrong. You need to issue possession proceedings in the County Court, and then it gets served by the bailiff. You can’t do it like this”.

I invited them to read the writ more carefully. We were not claiming possession. We were suing for damages. They could stay, but I explained that the losses that they would cause would include considerable financial losses to the business of the farm, and that if they were eventually unable to pay the damages, then we would bankrupt them.  They would lose their van. And the bike. It might be quite a while before any of them would ever get a credit card, or anything like that.

“Why would we do that?” they asked. At this point, Ian, who had thus far been a shade uncertain about the whole procedure, stepped up, and explained in the most reasonable tone imaginable that he was really very cross, that he had ample resources to pursue this claim for damages through to trial, and that since the kids were going to lose him his new farm manager, he might as well enforce his rights to damages from them. Unsurprisingly, Ian soon negotiated a deal whereby the kids left that evening, and we did not pursue the legal action any further.

“Do you know?” he said to me as we stopped for swift pint of Brakespear’s on the way home. “I liked the look of the one who was in charge. I think I might offer him a job”. I do not know if he ever did. I do know that he talked about the episode to Lady Olga Maitland, who wrote about it that weekend’s Sunday Express as if it had all been Ian’s idea!

Ian’s relationship with the Lloyd’s establishment was a checkered one. I do not think they really knew how to handle him; most of the other underwriters in those days were not the of the sharpest intellect. He had had dealings with a somewhat dubious quartet known as the “gang of four”, and when they were arrested for fraud, Ian was arrested too. His one permitted telephone call was to me, and I went to work immediately to identify the best criminal solicitor in London for this sort of case, who turned out to be a chap called Monty Raphael.  My next job was to buy a few cheering books and to speed round to the police cell when Ian was held. Monty soon got Ian out on bail.  The bail hearing was hilarious, in its gruesome way. One of Ian’s bondsmen was a young art dealer friend with dark hair flowing way down below his shoulders.  The magistrate asked him about his ability to pay the bail and got a somewhat vague answer.

“Well, let me ask you in this way,” said the magistrate. “How large a cheque could you write without your bank bouncing it?”

“Oh, I don’t know”, said the art dealer. “Six or seven million pounds, I suppose. Something like that”.

Ian was acquitted, of course, and in the meantime kept up a droll patter of rather dark humour. But I know the whole process took its toll on him. It was a case, I thought, where the trial was the punishment, which was very unfair.  Ian was a gentleman, and the whole prosecution thing was entirely alien to him.  Some time later, I was acting for Ian in a commercial matter.  We resolved it successfully, but in the course of that short litigation I got a four page letter from Ian asserting that I had let him down. I sent it back to him under cover of a “With compliments” slip, with a single hand-written line saying that I assumed that his letter a typographical error.  He never mentioned it again: it was a rare case of him momentarily letting the pressure of his legal trials disturb his usual high standards of courtesy. Our friendship continued as before.

Once retired, Ian and Sally turned much of their attention to Ian’s house and farm in Henley.  Ian’s delight in his ha-ha, the gardens, the orangery with its planters’ chairs  and the cattle and of course the dogs was palpable.  A weekend at that substantial house was always a huge pleasure for me, for all sorts of reasons – not only for the excellent quality of the roast beef but also Ian’s warm wit and generosity.  The bedroom in which I usually stayed had a bathroom (note for Americans: this means a room with a bath in it), and the bathroom had not only a thick carpet and heavy curtains (a rather English thing, perhaps) but also an open gas fire (rather an Ian thing). And decent claret, which Ian insisted on unusually warming by the Aga (another Ian thing). The claret was not a bathroom thing. It was a dining room thing.

And Subrogation Port. That was another Ian thing. One of his Lloyds syndicates had paid out on a claim where an error – in a bottling plant somewhere on the Iberian Peninsula, I guess – had led to a decent amount of decent port being rendered commercially valueless by being mixed with a bit of sherry.  The syndicate paid up, but then exercised its subrogation right to the eminently drinkable melange. It was suitably bottled and labelled and Ian was sharing it with his friends for years.

Ian was older than me (he was in his mid-eighties) and had led a hugely rich life but I will miss him. There are not many of his measure. The last time I saw him was last year – a decent lunch at a decent restaurant in Notting Hill – at which he was as funny and as sharp as ever.

My thoughts are with Sally, who he adored.



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