Feeling like the protagonist of Kafka’s fragment Before the Law, I cycled across town on a windy February evening to the Royal Courts of Justice. They’re Gothic, certainly, but the Gothic is so entrenched in British architecture – as style, recursive style, fakery and mockery – that to call the Courts this is a mere allusion. They are bulbous stupid Gothic, Gothic as an elaboration on High Victorian delusions of mightiness and rightiness, with finials of lumpy complacency buttressed by hefty hypocrisy. It’s no surprise to discover that George Edward Street, the criminal architect responsible for designing them, originally qualified as a solicitor.
Who but a solicitor would conceive of decorating the gates of the Law with the carved heads of celebrated judges and lawyers? Who but a solicitor would have the plodding nerve to surmount them with Jesus, Moses and Solomon, while the poor litigants are immortalised as a fighting dog and cat. And who but the Ministry of Justice – crazy Kafkaesque name, crazy Kafkaesque institution – would dream of hiring out the Great Hall by the hour, so that City types can trough down in splendour, and applaud their own huge feats of avarice, and tiny ones of beneficence.
I was here almost a year ago, called upon by a charity called War Child. Having been offered the opportunity to fundraise at a bond traders’ dinner, they were desperate for a speaker and asked me to step into the breech. On that occasion, things went reasonably well – if begging is ever OK. I doffed my rhetorical cap, and the rich guys listened respectfully to my spiel, before tossing a 10p coin into it. In fact, they divvied up a couple of hundred grand, but proportionally – given there were trillions in the Great Hall – I was a Big Issue seller in a suit.
This year, War Child came knocking again, and I didn’t have the gall to give them knock-back. True, I do believe in the work they’re doing – helping kids in war zones, feeding them, clothing them, building them schools – it’s just I’m not sure it’s them that should be doing it. Charities and other NGOs follow in the wake of our Government’s foreign adventuring like vultures with sociology degrees, feeding off the carrion left behind on the battlefield. They alight for a few months or years, putting out celebrity-endorsed pop CDs back home to fund their endeavours, and then flap away again to feed on more Humanism.
Still, any good is better than no good, and so it was that I found myself, within the gates of the law, watching the black ties getting spattered with red wine, and admiring the multicoloured up lights playing upon the pillars of the great hall. It transpired that this lot were different: not as grand as last year’s mob who were mostly CEOs, these poor cousins were responsible for leveraged finance and syndicated loans. Hmm, and the dread credit crunch was squeezing them until the Faberge pips popped out. Why, some of them would only be getting six-figure bonuses this year. Nevertheless, the dinner was an opportunity for these nabobs of debt creation to give themselves glitzy awards with snappy names like Best Arranger of Project Finance Loans and Best Arranger of Turkish Loans.
Now, I like to come into an environment and try to understand it, even one as bizarrely unwholesome as this. So, I dutifully asked the studious young man seated next to me what exactly a “mezzanine loan” was, and he explained that it was a loan where the borrowers’ failure to repay would result in the loaners acquiring equity in their business. Simple, really: banking as a kind of invasion of the body snatchers.
On they went, to the grossly amplified strains of pop hits, sashaying up to the lectern and booming out such rousing speeches as “We did the Imperial Tobacco loan!” It felt like aeons – yet it was only an hour or so. Finally, it was my turn to approach the gatekeeper of the Law. I spoke for 20 minutes or so, giving a run-down on War Child’s work, exhorting the assembled extremely wealthy people to divvy up for building toilets and schools in Iraq, and retraining traumatised child soldiers in the Congo, before ending up with a description of one case history: a 12-year-old Afghani girl raped by her uncle and then imprisoned for – you guessed it – adultery.
It was then that I began to hear a distinct susurration spreading through the Great Hall and lapping against the pretentious pillars: they were talking. And not just one or two of them, exchanging the odd remark – but entire tables chatting away while they slugged back the Rioja. I stopped, and boomed at them over the PA: “I’m wondering what exactly it is that you’re discussing that can possibly be more important than a child being raped?” But it was a stupid question, because I knew already: it was money – and there was certain justice in that, oh yes.