The unintended purpose

Longer ago than I care now to recall I was invited by John G. Jamieson to dine at his grand home on the eminent street where historically had lived the owners of the town’s now long-forgotten woollen mills. He informed me it was to be a black tie affair. At the time I felt honoured by the invitation which portended an elegant taxonomy. It would however prove to be a less than venerable and a more than unintended social engagement.

When I arrived at the appointed hour my first stop after exchanging greetings with my host was to take a look at the new grand piano which John had told me about. I was deliberately early enough in the evening’s proceedings to indulge myself in the allure of the new keyboard. Indeed somewhat to my surprise John positively encouraged me to do so. My interest in the piano was two-fold. The obvious attraction was the Steinway salon grand with its Louis XIV mahogany cabinet. Less apparent was the history of my chinwag with John months earlier while tinkering upon an upright grand piano in a room adjacent the lower garden of “Burnside” the home of Angus and Carlotta Morrison on the other side of town. We and others had congregated there for a Sunday afternoon luncheon. Both John and I had momentarily abandoned those devoted to their intoxicating preamble by venturing about the mansion (where pointedly I had been told there were no less than six pianos).  John told me of his intention to buy a piano for his children. When I enquired what make he replied, “Oh, just something simple, something for them to see if they like it!” To this I unhesitatingly responded, “Well what will they possibly like if the sound is no good? You’ve got to get them a Steinway.” What ensued was a brief but critical analysis of the various keyboard productions. It wasn’t however until these many months later (shortly before my invitation to this evening’s dinner) that John had telephoned me to advise that the new piano had arrived and that his accountants had concluded their review of the matter, indicating that an invite to inspect the piano would soon follow.

But I am getting ahead of myself. While playing the new piano I was asked by the steward what I wished to drink. The tumbler of neat whiskey arrived and I retreated to the outdoor flagstone patio with the westward perspective to join another guest already standing there. He informed me he was from England with Lloyd’s of London. He and his colleagues were in Canada to review accounts of airlines (including presumably First Air then owned by John).  At one point in our leisurely late afternoon confab overlooking the expansive front lawn of the Union St N property and the distant fields of Ramsay Township beneath the setting sun, a steward materialized and whispered to the insurance chap that there was a telephone call for him from London. The insurance man stubbed his cigarette, took a final sip of his drink and evaporated.  When he returned he was ashen faced.  On January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger had exploded within 7 seconds of its launch. Lloyd’s of London was the insurers’ insurer; that is, they insured the insurance companies. This was indeed distressing news.

The universe is nonetheless ultimately personal. As the evening wore on amid this unsettling news I was increasingly aware that I was rubbing shoulders with some distinguished members of the business community both local and international. Indeed apart from my native pride of both myself and my legal education I think it is fair to observe I was out of my depth. Being a proud country lawyer is no competition for the heady elements of either the financial or the insurance districts.

As I ruminated upon these inferences, John’s comment about the accountants, a statement initially unclear to me, unwittingly became evident. It also became clear why I had been distinguished to receive an invitation to this dinner.  I was the entertainment!  And like every respectable performer I had dressed for the occasion!

Before leaving I made certain to have another of those expensive single malt pours.