Martin Pawley: a night to remember
This is the time of year for resolutions, but I have nothing to resolve. In fact my powers of resolution, instead of straining forward into 1998 and beyond (as they so often do), insist on dwelling on painful episodes from the past. In particular that dinner at the Mansion House 10 years ago when Prince Charles praised the Luftwaffe for doing less harm to London during the blitz than the post-war planners had done after it.
Although this was Prince Charles's last big push at architecture, he did not dominate the evening in my eyes. The cynosure of my eyes was the great Satan Robert Maxwell, then owner of the Architectural Press, sitting in splendid isolation at the far end of the high table. Throughout the proceedings no one spoke to him and he spoke to nobody. He sat there impassive, next to an empty chair, twiddling his fork, a shambling monster of a man, made even more monstrous by the height of the podium upon which the high table stood.
As a journalist, I was seated at the lowly press table, almost underneath him. But as the dinner wore on and speeches were made, I became more and more obsessed with the idea of speaking to him. This was a golden opportunity, perhaps the best I would ever have. The owner of the Daily Mirror and the founder of the European was sitting barely five feet away.
I had good reason to approach a press baron. A new regime at the Guardian threatened my position as critic. The powers wanted a 'consumer of architecture' to write about the subject. Preferably someone who would appreciate Rod Hackney's timber guttering and applaud the Prince's plucky attacks on architects. They did not want an enemy agent steeped in architectural lore. They wanted someone who would fearlessly denounce architects by name; someone who could run off a long list of anti-social tower blocks at the drop of an 'eyesore'. Someone who would get indignant about satellite dishes and out-of-town supermarkets, someone who would traipse around old buildings and tirelessly launch campaigns to save them for the nation.
I couldn't believe Robert Maxwell would be like that. Cap'n Bob was made of sterner stuff. He had come up the hard way. He knew that you couldn't make an omelette without breaking heads. So I decided to seize my chance and slip away from my seat under cover of the gluttonous hubbub of 800 diners and their attendant waiters. Quickly I stepped to the high table, which was almost level with my head, and looked up. Maxwell loomed above me like a gigantic Michelin Man.
'Excuse me, Mr Maxwell,' I said. He looked at me dully, stopped playing with his fork, and nodded for me to go on.
'I just thought,' I said. 'It must be time the Mirror had an architectural writer. I'd like to offer myself for the job.'
He focused his eyes on me for the first time.
'Do what?' he grated in a deep voice.
I repeated myself.
He looked at me for a second or two.
'Piss off,' he growled, and turned his attention back to his fork.