Pitman house had been true to the architectural principles of its time. Its tone was of secular power tempered by humanitarianism: glass and steel were softened by ash and beech; licks of eau-de-nil and acid yellow gave hints of controlled passion; in the vestibule a dusty-red Corb drum subverted the dominion of hard angles. The supernal atrium objectified the aspirations of this worldly cathedral; while passive ventilation and energy-saving showed its commitment to society and the environment. There was flexibility of spatial use and candid ductwork: according to the architectural team of Slater, Grayson & White, the building combined sophistication of means with transparency of intent. Harmony with nature was another key commitment: behind Pitman House was an area of specially-created wetland. Staff on the decking (hardwood from renewable sources) could eat their sandwiches while inspecting the transient birdlife of the Hertfordshire borders.
----------------The architects were accustomed to client intervention; but even they lost a little fluency when glossing Sir Jack Pitman's personal contribution to their design: the insertion at boardroom level of a double-cube office with moulded cornices, shagpile carpet, coal fires, standard lamps, flock wallpaper, oil paintings, curtained faux
windows and bobble-nosed light switches. As Sir Jack musingly proposed, 'Rightly though we glory in the capabilities of the present, the cost should not, I feel, be paid in disdain for the past.' Slater, Grayson & White had tried to point out that building the past was, alas, nowadays considerably more expensive than building the present or the future. Their client had deferred comment, and they were left to reflect that at least this sealed sub-baronial unit would probably be considered Sir Jack's personal folly rather than an element in their own design statement. As long as no-one congratulated them on its ironic post-post-modernism.
----------------Between the airy, whispering space created by the architects and the snug den demanded by Sir Jack lay a small office -- no more than a transitional tunnel -- known as the Quote Room. Here Sir Jack liked to keep visitors waiting until summoned by his PA. Sir Jack himself had been known to linger in the tunnel for more than a few moments while making the journey from outer office to inner sanctum. It was a simple, austere, underlit space. There were no magazines, and no TV monitors dispensing promo clips about the Pitman empire. Nor were there gaudily comfortable sofas covered with the hides of rare species. Instead, there was a single high-backed Jacobethan oak settle facing a spotlit slab. The visitor was encouraged, indeed obliged, to study what was chiselled in Times roman:
is a big man in every sense of the word.
Big in ambition, big in appetite, big in generosity.
He is a man whom it takes a leap
of the imagination fully to come to terms with.
From small beginnings, he has risen like a meteor
to great things. Entrepreneur, innovator,
ideas man, arts patron, inner-city revitaliser.
Less a captain of industry than a very admiral,
Sir Jack is a man who walks with presidents
yet is never afraid to roll up his sleeves
and get his hands dirty.
For all his fame and wealth, he is yet
intensely private, a family man at heart.
Imperious when necessary, and always forthright,
Sir Jack is not a man to be trifled with;
he suffers neither fools nor busybodies.
Yet his compassion runs deep.
Still restless and ambitious,
Sir Jack makes the head spin with his energy,
dazzles with his larger-than-life charm.
----------------These words, or most of them, had been written a few years previously by a Times
profiler to whom Sir Jack had subsequently given brief employment. He had deleted references to his age, appearance and estimated wealth, had the whole thing pulled together by a rewrite man, and ordered the final text to be carved on a swathe of Cornish slate. He was content that the quote was no longer sourced: a few years ago the acknowledgment 'The Times of London' had been chiselled out and a filler rectangle of slate inserted. This made the tribute more authoritative, and more timeless, he felt.
----------------Now he stood in the exact centre of his double-cube snuggery, beneath the Murano chandelier and equidistant from the two Bavarian hunting-lodge fireplaces. He had hung his jacket on the Brancusi in a way that -- to his eye, at least -- implied joshing familiarity rather than disrespect, and was displaying his roundedly rhomboid shape to his PA and his Ideas Catcher. There had been some earlier institutional name for this latter figure, but Sir Jack had replaced it with 'Ideas Catcher'. Someone had once compared him to a giant firework, throwing out ideas as a Catherine wheel throws out sparks, and it seemed only proper that those who pitched should have someone to catch. He pulled on his after-lunch cigar and snapped his MCC braces: red and yellow, ketchup and egg-yolk. He was not a member of the MCC, and his brace-maker knew better than to ask. For that matter, he had not been to Eton, served in the Guards, or been accepted by the Garrick Club; yet he owned the braces which implied as much. A rebel at heart, he liked to think. A bit of a maverick. A man who bends the knee to no-one. Yet a patriot at heart.
----------------'What is there left for me?' he began. Paul Harrison, the Ideas Catcher, did not immediately activate the body-mike. This had become a familiar trope in recent months. 'Most people would say that I have done everything a man is capable of in my life. Many, indeed, do. I have built businesses from the dust up. I have made money, few would deny that. Honours have come my way. I am the trusted confidant of heads of state. I have been the lover, if I may say so, of beautiful women. I am a respected but, I must emphasize, not too respected member of society. I have a title. My wife sits at the right hand of presidents. What is there left?'
----------------Sir Jack exhaled, his words swirling in the cigar smoke which fogged the lower droplets of the chandelier. Those present knew the question to be strictly rhetorical. An earlier PA had naively imagined that at such moments Sir Jack might be in search of useful suggestions, or, even more naively, consolation; she had been found less demanding employment elsewhere in the group.
----------------'What is real? This is sometimes how I put the question to myself. Are you
real, for instance -- you and you?' Sir Jack gestured with mock courtesy to the room's other occupants, but did not turn his head away from his thought. 'You are real to yourselves, of course, but that is not how these things are judged at the highest level. My answer would be No. Regrettably. And you will forgive me for my candour, but I could have you replaced with substitutes, with . . . simulacra, more quickly than I could sell my beloved Brancusi. Is money real? It is, in a sense, more real than you. Is God real? That is a question I prefer to postpone until the day I meet my Maker. Of course I have my theories, I have even, as you might say, plunged a little into futures. Let me confess -- cut your throat and hope to die, as I believe the saying goes -- that I sometimes imagine such a day. Let me share my suppositions with you. Picture the moment when I am invited to meet my Maker, who in His infinite wisdom has followed with interest our trivial lives in this vale of tears. What, I ask you, might He have in store for Sir Jack? If I were He -- presumptuous thought I admit -- I would naturally be obliged to punish Sir Jack for his many human faults and vanities. No, no!' Sir Jack held up his hands to quell the likely protests of his employees. 'And what would I -- He -- do? I -- He -- might be tempted to keep me -- oh, for not too long a stretch, I trust -- in a Quote Room of my own. Sir Jack's very personal limbo. Yes, I would give him -- me! -- the hard settle and spotlight treatment. A mighty tablet. And no magazines
, not even the holiest!'
----------------Sotto chuckles were appropriate, and were duly provided. Sir Jack walks with the deity, Lady Pitman dines at the right hand of God.
----------------Sir Jack strolled heavily across to Paul's desk and leaned towards him. The Ideas Catcher knew the rules: eye contact was now required. Mostly, you preferred to pretend that working for Sir Jack required hunched shoulders, lowered lids, unbreakable concentration. Now, he panned upwards to his employer's face: the wavy, boot-black hair; the fleshy ears, the left lobe pulled long by one of Sir Jack's negotiating tics; the smooth convexity of jowl which buried the Adam's apple; the clarety complexion; the slight pock-mark where a mole had been removed; the mattressy eyebrows with their threads of grey; and there, waiting for you, timing how long it took to get your courage up, the eyes. You saw so many things in those eyes -- benign contempt, cold affection, patient irritation, logical anger -- though whether such complexities of emotion in fact existed was another matter. Reason told you that Sir Jack's technique of personnel-management consisted in never offering the mood or expression obvious to the occasion. But there were also times when you wondered if Sir Jack was merely standing before you holding in his face a pair of small mirrors, circles in which you read your own confusion.
----------------When Sir Jack was satisfied -- and you never quite knew what did satisfy Sir Jack -- he took his bulk back to the middle of the room. Murano glass above his head, shagpile lapping his laces, he swilled another grave question around his palate.
----------------'Is my name . . . real?' Sir Jack considered the matter, as did his two employees. Some believed that Sir Jack's name was not real in a straightforward sense, and that a few decades earlier he had deprived it of its Mitteleuropäisch tinge. Others had it on authority that, though born some way east of the Rhine, little Jacky was in fact the result of a garage liaison between the shire-bred English wife of a Hungarian glass manufacturer and a visiting chauffeur from Loughborough, and thus, despite his upbringing, original passport, and occasional fluffed vowel, his blood was one hundred percent British. Conspiracy theorists and profound cynics went further, suggesting that the fluffed vowels were themselves a device: Sir Jack Pitman was the son of a humble Mr and Mrs Pitman, long since paid off, and the tycoon had allowed the myth of continental origin slowly to surround him; though whether for reasons of personal mystique or professional advantage, they could not decide. None of these hypotheses received support on this occasion, as he supplied his own answer. 'When a man has sired nothing but daughters, his name is a mere trinket on loan from eternity.'
----------------A cosmic shudder, which may have been digestive in origin, ran through Sir Jack Pitman. He swivelled, puffed smoke, and eased into his peroration.
----------------'Are great ideas real? The philosophers would have us believe so. Of course, I have had great ideas in my time, but somehow -- do not record this, Paul, I am not certain it is for the archive -- somehow, sometimes I wonder how real they were. These may be the ramblings of a senile fool -- I do not hear your cries of contradiction so I presume you agree -- but perhaps there is life in the old dog yet. Perhaps what I need is one last great idea. One for the road, eh, Paul? That you may record.'
----------------Paul tapped in, 'Perhaps what I need is one last great idea', looked at it on the screen, remembered that he was responsible for rewrites as well, that he was, as Sir Jack had once put it, 'my personal Hansard', and deleted the wimpish 'Perhaps'. In its more assertive form the statement would enter the archive, timed and dated.
----------------Sir Jack good-humouredly lodged his cigar in the stomach-hole of a Henry Moore maquette, stretched and pirouetted lightly. 'Tell Woodie it's time,' he said to his PA, whose name he could never remember. In one sense, of course, he could: it was Susie. This was because he called all his PAs Susie. They seemed to come and go at some speed. So it was not really her name he was unsure of, but her identity. Just as he'd been saying a moment ago -- to what extent was she real? Quite.
----------------He retrieved his jacket from the Brancusi and shrugged it past his MCC braces. In the Quote Room he paused to read again the familiar citation. He knew it by heart, of course, but still liked to linger over it. Yes, one last great idea. The world had not been entirely respectful in recent years. Well then, the world needed to be astonished.
----------------Paul initialled his memorandum and stored it. The latest Susie rang down to the chauffeur and reported on their employer's mood. Then she picked up his cigar, and returned it to Sir Jack's desk drawer.
Excerpted from England, England
by Julian Barnes. Copyright © 1999 by Julian Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 2000 by Julian Barnes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.