The lure of seagulls

Independent on Sunday: Talk of the Town, 7 December 2003

The interviewer was a well-dressed, shaven-headed man, careful to exude a finely honed cosmopolitan charm that lent an exquisite nonchalence to his final question: “The job will entail a lot of overseas travel, is that OK?” He adjusted the cufflinks of his pink shirt and sat back in his chair. “Not at all,” I said, as if ‘a lot of overseas travel’ was my middle name. We shook hands and, days later, the job was mine.

I couldn’t wait. This was a glamorous job in a huge multinational, now sadly defunct but at the time, as important as any before or since. And ‘a lot of overseas travel’ had not quite materialised in my legal career up that point.

As a libel lawyer, Bournemouth and Leeds vied with one another as the twin, and lone, high points of my wanderings. I was sent on highly complex file collation exercises, slightly lacking in international glamour but, in Bournemouth at least, not without their rewards. It was a sunny day and I shared a hard-earned cup of coffee with the seagulls on the promenade, having packed up all my files. The sea was shimmering with the texture of an Albert Marquet painting and I thought to myself: “Life isn’t bad.”

I remembered that day in Bournemouth as I arrived for work on my first day at the extremely grand, though regrettably now insolvent, multinational. Here, at last, I would be among the glitterati of the legal profession, those chosen few lawyers who fly first-class to Miami, Rio and Tokyo and who say ‘I caught the red eye’ as if it is no more remarkable than saying ‘I went to the pub.’ In the meantime, it is true, there had been some exotica. I had flown via Easyjet from Luton to Glasgow, and back again, and made endless trips to a vast industrial estate outside Munich, where the featureless landscape never ceased to make the law seem interesting. I had been to Berlin, too, and also Hamburg, but now, surely, within just weeks, I would be sent somewhere jaw-droppingly cool, like Sydney, or Hong-Kong, where I could tag on a day or two’s holiday and bag some fantastic air miles.

Soon enough, my shaven-headed superior called me into his office. “I’ve got to go overseas for a meeting, and was wondering if you could come with me,” he said. Of course, when? “In a couple of days,” he said. I was cosmopolitan nonchalance itself. “Not a problem,” I said. “Where are we going?” Munich, came the reply, and two days later I found myself on the same vast industrial estate outside Munich. Do all roads lead here, I wondered? Am I fated forever to fly to Munich airport and drive through this desperately dull landscape, Teutonic legal rigour looming?

But miraculously, a case arose that entailed a trip to LA. Then there was a new venture that the company was looking at, in Gibraltar. It was warm, it was sunny, it was a splendid if pointless trip. And then, I couldn’t believe it, I was sent to New York. I attended a meeting in a ridiculously tall building and looked out from on high and felt like a Master of the Universe. I wasn’t, of course, I was hopelessly out of my depth fumbling with intricacies of U.S corporate law, but a young lawyer present was told to entertain me for the evening, and took me to a popular lap-dancing club. It wasn’t my kind of thing – I can never see the point – but the fresh-faced all-American quarter-back type was loving every minute and, worryingly, had convinced himself that one of the girls liked him. “I mean, man, she really likes me.” In vain, I told him that she wouldn’t be going home with him, however much money he gave her. And when, inevitably, she said adios amigo, he was as crestfallen as anyone I’ve ever seen.

He walked me back to my hotel in virtual silence, and we were accosted by a lady of the night with a moustache. She took some dodging, and back in my swish hotel room life suddenly seemed very sad. I remembered the seagulls on Bournemouth sea front, and said to myself that from now on, if that’s as good as it gets, that’ll do me.