Decamot of the month

31 Dec 2017-An Impulsive Act

Inspired by the following Decamot items:
Arthur’s Seat, beach, blogger, Bollywood, chair, mandarin, marrow, necklace, rollercoaster, Chelsea

Arthur Scott was a high flying foreign office mandarin whose intellectual prowess invariably dominated conversations in which he took part with less erudite colleagues. A double first at Cambridge in Classics and Mathematics entitled him to the respect of his contemporaries but many could not forgive what they perceived as gratuitous arrogance on his part.

Theobald Hopgood, his first head of section at their imposing 19th century offices in King Charles Street, felt under pressure from the moment that he was allocated this fast-track post graduate trainee back in 2000. He will never forget taking him on the standard introductory tour of the Foreign Office building which was an edifice of significant cultural as well as architectural importance. His introduction was especially well rehearsed to impress new interns; designed to give them an appropriate historical perspective.

“The first Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was appointed in March 1782, but the first purpose-built Foreign Office was not begun until 1861. It was completed in 1868 as part of the new block of government offices which included the India Office and later - in 1875 to be precise - the Colonial and Home Offices.”

Arthur Scott had nodded his appreciation of Hopgood’s introduction and casually threw in an opening comment of his own,

“I know” he said, smiling benignly “It was built by my great, great, great, great, grandfather, George Gilbert Scott in partnership with Matthew Digby Wyatt. Forgive me, I might have slipped in an extra ‘great’ there but my forbear was responsible for the overall classical design of these offices; he seemingly had an amicable partnership with Wyatt, the India Office’s Surveyor, who designed and built the interior of the India Office.”

“Do you know” he went on enthusiastically, hardly pausing for breath let alone seeking permission to continue from his superior officer, “he always said he wanted the design to be a kind of national palace or drawing room for the nation with the use of rich decoration to impress foreign visitors. The same was true of Wyatt’s India Office but, to be frank, I find Wyatt’s efforts a bit too Bollywood for my taste. What do you think Theo? Sorry, may I call you Theo, Theo? What is your take on all this?”

Hopgood had been rendered speechless and didn’t know what to think; it simply wasn’t in the script. He certainly didn’t have a “take” on anything but was professional enough to offer a contorted grimace and a mumbled “ours is not to question why … under his breath … or so he thought until Scott chose to finish his inaudible quotation for him

“ ……. Ours is but to do or die! ….. Oh, I’m a huge fan of Alfred Lord Tennyson Theo, aren’t you? Mind you, the actual quotation is theirs is not to question why, but one shouldn’t quibble should one? One cannot fault the sentiment expressed by Tennyson in his epic poem can one Theo?”

Scott was now sprinkling “Theos” into his sentences like superfluous semi colons.

It took all Hopgood’s self-control to stop him from headbutting this pompous pedant who he thought might benefit from a corrective afternoon on the terraces at Chelsea FC where he would be exposed to real life popular culture. That would teach him a thing or two.

The only other human being who irritated Hopgood as much as this new upstart was an anonymous blogger who offered monthly insights into the apparent failings of Hopgood’s very own department under the blog title UNCIVILSERVICE.com.

Hopgood convinced himself that the mysterious scribbler posted his blog from a beach somewhere in California and that he had never ever been to the UK let alone King Charles Street; yet his regular offerings had that nagging plausibility about them. It was almost as if he was being fed material by an undercover whistle-blower. Last month’s offering centred on the section head’s apparent inability to chair a meeting effectively. According to the blogger, all key decisions involved a tortuous process of deep analytical thinking followed by a decisive vote.

“Rumour has it” claimed the blog “that Beethoven is played during any important discussions. Furthermore, the discourse has be conducted by committee members standing up! The job of the committee’s permanent secretary is to surreptitiously remove a chair whilst the discussion takes place. Whenever the music stops, members are obliged to sit down on the nearest available seat. Anybody left standing after the inevitable scramble for seats has their views totally disregarded!”

How absurd thought Hopgood as he attempted to consign the blog to his subconscious. Why, the whistle-blower doesn’t even recognise Tchaikovsky when he hears it!

All these thoughts raced through his mind when he read a headline from the London Evening Standard dated 31st December 2017

TOP CIVIL SERVANT ACCUSED OF SHOPLIFTING

The story explained that Sir Arthur Scott, the most senior civil servant attached to the cabinet office, had been arrested and taken into custody accused of attempting to steal an Eskandar Beaded necklace worth £2000 from Harrods. Sir Arthur, 42, of Farm Street Mayfair, not only denied the charges but had opted to appear before a judge and jury at the Old Bailey in January when he promised he would vigorously defend his good name. Sir Arthur had been apprehended by one of Harrod’s security guards as he left the famous emporium on the Brompton Road.

Theobald Hopgood always felt that his own diplomatic career had suffered by the meteoric rise of his trainee, but he wasn’t sure his young apprentice was capable of theft. He was an arrogant little shit who was always two steps ahead of him, but to steal from Harrods seemed totally out of character. Equally baffling was his decision to defend himself in such a high profile public arena.

Surely, he would have been better advised to admit an error of judgement? Or a temporary loss of memory? Either way, he could surely have handed back the necklace with an apology for causing a commotion. Now he would have to resign his position as the Prime Minister’s closest confident just when his political star was in the ascendency. The ‘no smoke without fire’ brigade would never let him back in to the establishment even if he was found to be totally innocent.

Hopgood’s private deliberations were interrupted by the urgent ringing of his internal telephone which sat on the corner of his standard issue section head’s mahogany Victorian style Partners desk.

“Have you seen the Evening Standard, Theo?”

It was his colleague, Frederick Beamish, a fellow section head from HR department, seated behind an identical desk to Hopgood’s which befitted their middle ranking grade.

“I have indeed Freddie, what do you make of it?”

“Well I don’t know anybody in the service who actually liked the arrogant little Johnny Know - All but this must be a first; even for Sir Arthur High & Mighty Scott”

“Yes, I agree” replied Hopgood “Totally out of character. The only thing that you might argue fits his MO is the choice of the Old Bailey for his trial – he must have deemed the local magistrates court beneath him!”

“I hadn’t thought of that” said Beamish “Why don’t we go and watch from the public gallery?” Hopgood laughed as a particularly hilarious reminiscence popped into his head.

“What’s tickled your ribs Theo? One thing is for sure, I bet the prisoner wouldn’t find it funny?”

“I agree” said Hopgood trying to contain his laughter “He doesn’t have any sense of humour; do you remember that nonsense about Arthur’s seat all those years ago when we played our version of musical chairs?”

Now it was Beamish’ s turn to giggle as the incident came back to him.

“What was it that Mavis Marshall said that provoked the instant lecture?” said Beamish

“Anybody seen Arthur’s seat?”

This recollection set Beamish off on an animated impersonation of their erstwhile colleague, including the odd stutter on key words beginning with the letter “s” thrown in for dramatic effect.

“Arthurs Seat is the main peak of the group of hills in Edinburgh, Scotland which form most of Holyrood Park, described by Robert Louis Stevenson as "a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design”. Its name is thought to derive from the Gaelic meaning Height of Arrows so ‘Archers Seat’ morphed into Arthurs Seat. Yes, you may be surprised to learn, Miss Marshall, that I’ve actually sat on Arthurs Seat” Soon both section heads were convulsed in laughter and, unsurprisingly, instantly agreed what a stonking good idea it would be to witness the trial of Sir Arthur Scott.

There were only two witnesses who appeared for the prosecution – the security guard who arrested Scott and one of Harrod’s shop assistants working on the jewellery counter that day. It didn’t take long for the prosecuting counsel, one Jeremy Lloyd QC, to establish the essential facts of his case, neither of which was contested by Scott.

Lloyd: Mr Thomas please tell the court in your own words what happened that afternoon.

Thomas: I was standing near the Hans Crescent entrance to Harrods when the alarm sounded

Lloyd: What alarm is that Mr Thomas?

Thomas: It’s a special alarm that is triggered when a customer leaves the store with an item which has not been through the till scanner when the tag is normally deactivated.

Lloyd: How did you know it was the accused who was responsible for activating the alarm?

Thomas: There were three customers going through at the time – all three stopped – the other two were a couple with several Harrods bags but Sir Arthur merely put his hands up and said, “Search me quickly as I have a meeting to get to!”

Lloyd: And did you?

Thomas: I called a colleague on my walkie talkie as I needed a witness present to conduct a body search and that took about three minutes but as soon as he arrived I started on the accused’s outer coat and immediately found a box containing a necklace.

Lloyd: What was the reaction of the accused?

Thomas: He said there must be some mistake – he said he had no idea how the box got into his pocket, but he did admit to having looked at the same item earlier on when he was in the jewellery department.

Lloyd: Thank you Mr Thomas – your witness Sir Arthur

Scott: I have no questions for Mr Thomas – he has described what happened in sufficient detail although I would dispute the time he says it took for his colleague to arrive – I would have put it at nearer six and a half minutes. In the public gallery Beamish nudged Hopgood in the ribs and murmured under his breath “still a bloody pedant!”

The second witness was a nervous looking young female shop assistant – a Miss Yvonne Harper – who confirmed that she had shown the accused the necklace at about 3.00 pm but she hadn’t served him as her tea break was due and the accused didn’t seem that bothered one way or the other.

Lloyd: When did you last see the box with the necklace in it?

Miss Harper: I left the box on a shelf on my side of the counter and went off for my tea break.

Lloyd: Was it there when you returned?

Miss Harper: No, it had gone – I assumed it must have been put back in the cabinet – we had a rush of customers, so I didn’t really give it any thought.

Lloyd: Thank you Miss Harper – your witness Sir Arthur

Sir Arthur: Miss Harper, or may I call you Yvonne?

Miss Harper: Yvonne is fine my lord.

Sir Arthur: My dear Yvonne, I commend you for the accuracy of your account; I am happy that this court records the description of events that took place between us as being exactly as you have described. I wouldn’t quibble with one word of it!

Miss Harper: Thank you my lord.

Sir Arthur: And what is more, Yvonne, I also applaud you for your immense courage in appearing here in such an august setting as the Old Bailey!

Miss Harper: Thank you my lord.

Sir Arthur: But, I have to say, Yvonne, that if you applied to me for a job you wouldn’t get past the interview stage as you are clearly incapable of adhering to the terms of your employment contract. You have displayed a cavalier attitude to following simple instructions. You breached Harrod’s own rules in going off for your tea break without putting the necklace back inside the cabinet did you not Miss Harper?

Hopgood nudged Beamish in the ribs and muttered under his breath “what a bastard – poor girl looks as if she is about to burst into tears”

Sir Arthur: I have no further questions for you so do feel free to stand down.

A buzz of excited conversation went around the court as the judge took the opportunity to adjourn the session for luncheon with a direction that proceedings would continue at 2.30 pm sharp, which was Yvonne Harper’s cue to burst into tears.

Caffè Nero in Newgate Street proved a popular venue for those escaping from the Old Bailey for a light bite. Hopgood and Beamish sat at a counter near the entrance and tackled two cappuccinos and a Ham & Mozzarella Panini each whilst debating the issues of the morning and speculating on what they thought might be an emotional rollercoaster for the young shop assistant witness.

“I can’t quite see what Arthur Scott hoped to achieve by ridiculing that young girl” said Hopgood

“No but Scottie has never suffered fools, gladly has he?” Beamish replied “Not that I am implying the girl is a fool, but he did have a point. She should have put the necklace away in a safe place before popping out for lunch”

“Keep your voice down Freddie! The young lady in question is in the opposite corner being comforted by someone who could be her mother”

Beamish glanced over and said in a confidential Foreign Office tone “Well, well, well.… if I’m not mistaken, that looks very like Mavis Marshall, I wondered what became of her after she left us. Whatever is she doing here?”

Hopgood looked up and was equally surprised to confirm his colleague’s initial identification although their former secretary had put on some weight as well as colouring her once blond hair a curious pinkie silver. As he put it, her appearance was “not unknown for ladies of a certain age coping with the menopause”

The afternoon session started with a summing up by Jeremy Lloyd QC of the prosecution case. It did not take long as the essential facts were undisputed. Sir Arthur Scott had been caught red handed leaving Harrods with £2000 worth of jewellery in his coat pocket which he could not explain. He had made no attempt to apologise or offer a plausible explanation as to how the necklace had made its way there. He concluded his peroration with a classic appeal to the twelve jury members.

“I have the greatest respect for Sir Arthur who fulfils one of the most demanding roles within the civil service but, when his only defence seems to be casting aspersions on the good character of an innocent shop assistant, my respect turns to contempt. I can only assume that he is showing early signs of kleptomania, but you must find the accused guilty as charged”

Hopgood and Beamish looked on with some trepidation as Sir Arthur Scott rose to defend himself with his own final submission.

“Members of the jury” he announced as if he were behind a lectern delivering the annual lecture at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, complete with fully illustrated PowerPoint slides.

“I am indebted to Jeremy Lloyd for his suggestion that I may be suffering from early onset Kleptomania or klopemania as it is also referred to in some circles. It was first described in 1816 and is now classified in modern psychiatry as impulsive control disorder. If you refer to most medical dictionaries you will see it described as – and here I quote directly from Dr Fredrich Weinstock’s classic paper of 1923 delivered as part of the Vienna International Symposium on Mental Welfare, “the inability to refrain from the urge for stealing items and is usually done for reasons other than personal use or financial gain”

Hopgood and Beamish looked at each other as both had noticed one or two members of the jury were nodding their heads, not as a sign of agreement but more a case of early onset narcolepsy.

He ended his concluding remarks with “I can assure you that I have no use for an Eskandar Beaded necklace worth £2000 but, equally, I have no plausible explanation for how it ended up in my Wool Cashmere Tailored Coat from Burberry. Someone is guilty of pseudologia fantastica, but that someone is not me”

“What the fuck is that?” Hopgood asked Beamish under his breath.

“Ah! That I do know” said Beamish “Its banded about by newly appointed ambassadors as a description of their function as HM Government’s representatives abroad, pseudologia fantastica is a chronic tendency to spin outrageous lies!”

Hopgood responded with “Well, I am not sure how many members of the jury have a double first from Cambridge or how many would appreciate the subtleties of jocular diplomatic slang, but we will find out tomorrow no doubt”

The two section heads agreed to reconvene the next morning for breakfast at Martino’s in the shadow of St Pauls. Both had felt a little uneasy at the plight of their former protégé who seemed to have deliberately put himself on trial. Neither had liked Scott from the outset. He was one of those irritating people who colleagues took an instant dislike to. Why an instant dislike, they used to quip? Because it saves time!

“You know Freddie” said Hopgood “Although I would love to see Scott get his comeuppance I can’t help thinking this would be over and above natural justice. I looked up the maximum sentence for shop lifting and he could go down for seven years which seems excessive, even for a single minded self-opinionated prat like Sir Arthur Scott”

“I agree” said Beamish “And there is something else that I discovered last night which is slightly curious. I looked up Mavis Marshall’s file. I often wondered why she suddenly left all those years ago. She was accused of being a subversive agent by guess who? That’s right, Sir High & bloody Mighty himself! Under oath, she admitted she was the blogger behind UNCIVILSERVICE.com. Scott argued that this was a clear breach of the Official Secrets Act. She was dismissed without publicity but did accept a small payment in lieu of built up holiday entitlement”

Hopgood looked shocked but couldn’t really see any obvious link to Sir Arthur Scott’s current predicament.

The Jury took four hours to come to a decision having been directed by the judge to focus on the character of the accused who had not disputed the fact that he had visited the jewellery counter; had looked at the necklace when shown it by Miss Harper but had declined to make a purchase; had been caught with it in his pocket when leaving the store; but who could not explain how the said item had ended up in his pocket.

“Put simply, members of the jury, do you believe him?”

The reality was they didn’t, so they duly delivered a unanimous verdict of guilty as charged which was met with an immediate cacophony in the courtroom as journalists rushed to file copy and others conducted instant verdicts of their own. A high proportion of those present were smartly dressed and clearly from the varied ranks of the civil service. Miss Yvonne Harper sat with her head in her hands; the comforting arm of Mavis Marshall around her shoulders.

“Order, Order!” called the Judge who said he would pass sentence on Sir Arthur Scott in one weeks’ time after he had had time to consider representations from social services and other interested parties. In the meantime, Sir Arthur was told to surrender his passport and remain at his home until called back to hear judgment. “As Sir Arthur will know, some custodial element is inevitable given the gravity of the offence, but I want to be certain that what is applied in this case is appropriate”

Hopgood and Beamish immediately retired to the Wig & Pen in Fleet Street for a spot of lunch and an opportunity to discuss the case in convivial surroundings. Both had been shocked by the verdict which would destroy the career of Sir Arthur Scott who nobody liked but who probably did not deserve such a public humiliation. Well into a bottle of Rothschild Pinot Noir, Hopgood was the first to broach the subject of Miss Mavis Marshall.

“Freddie” he said, “We owe it to the department to sort out Mavis; to see what she has to say and hope there is no connection between her and Miss Yvonne Harper and that her presence in the courtroom today was simply idle curiosity like our own – OK?”

Later that evening the two colleagues knocked on the door of a smart Victorian three storey house overlooking Clapham Common. The door was opened by Miss Mavis Marshall herself who immediately recognised her old section head

“Theo! Bloody hell what are you doing here? How many years is it? Do come in dear boy – my daughter Yvonne will get us a coffee – unless you want something a little stronger - I seem to remember you were partial to the odd glass of Pinot Noir!”

The two former colleagues were shown into an open plan living area looking on to a neat walled back garden with a small greenhouse along the rear fence

Mavis was clearly in high spirits

“Yes” she continued “Cancel the coffee darling! Open a celebratory bottle of prosecco instead. Bring it through to the lounge and meet two old colleagues of mine who will be as happy as me at today’s Old Bailey result!”

Turning to Hopgood she added “I take it that is why you are here – I thought I spotted you in the public gallery!”

Hopgood and Beamish looked sheepish as Yvonne, looking equally apprehensive, brought in a tray of drinks and put it down on the smoky glass coffee table.

“Come on gentlemen raise your glass and drink a toast to the British judicial system!”

On seeing their reluctance to fully participate in the celebrations, Mavis tried another tack

“Come on guys – I get more animated conversation out of one of my prize marrows. The bastard got what he deserved!”

Beamish slowly plucked up courage with his first sip of the Italian champagne

“But did he really Mavis?”

“Did he what Freddie?”

“Deserve a guilty verdict which could put him in jail for seven years. I agree he was an arrogant little bastard, but I never put shoplifting down as one of his specialities. You can say what you like about his obnoxious characteristics but being clever verging on genius to the point which robs you of all social skills doesn’t make you a criminal in my book”

Yvonne suddenly found her voice

“I told you it was wrong Mummy! You said he would get off!”

“Shut up Yvonne it won’t do him any harm to suffer for a few months after what he did to me”

Hopgood was now taking a keen interest in the direction the conversation was taking as the celebratory beverage loosened tongues. He looked Mavis in the eye and said calmly

“If you are referring to your dismissal from the service then I have to tell you that you could easily have been given a jail sentence yourself but the record shows that Sir Arthur Scott asked for clemency in view of your obvious youth and inexperience”

Beamish kept his head down as he couldn’t recall Scott saying anything of the sort

Yvonne now burst into tears and could not be consoled by any of the other three as she blurted out a true account, through much sobbing and spluttering, of what really happened, despite the increasingly desperate, despairing pleas of her mother to stop.

Hopgood and Beamish bore silent witness to the confession with a mixture of relief and growing hostility towards Mavis Marshall who had managed to capitalise on an impulsive act of her daughter who had recognised Scott when he came to the jewellery counter. She couldn’t believe she was serving the ogre who had ruined her mother’s career.

“As he left I slipped the box into my pocket and followed him towards the exit. As we waited for a group to enter I slipped it into his pocket without him noticing and disappeared in the direction of the café. When I got home in the evening Mummy couldn’t believe it. We thought Scott would suffer from the bad publicity, but we never expected him to be found guilty”

The BBC led their bulletins the next morning with a breaking news story. Cabinet secretary, Sir Arthur Scott, had been found dead in his Mayfair home in the early hours apparently from an overdose. Foul play was not suspected but the reporter at the scene reminded viewers that he had been convicted of theft at the Old Bailey earlier on in the day and was awaiting sentence.

A routine search of his apartment by police later revealed that his spare bedroom was crammed full of small items which had been taken from various branches of Poundstretcher’s, Woolworth’s and WH Smith over many years. All were still in their original wrappers with price tags attached. No single item had a value of more than 50 pence.