...it's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years.
The other day a friend sent me a link to say that an old acquaintance of ours, Constantine Gonticas, was now in day-to-day charge of Millwall Football Club. I was surprised and unsurprised. Surprised and unsurprised and interested, not least because until a couple of weeks before, I was living in Millwall country. I was lodging in East Dulwich, where if you saw a football shirt (and although East Dulwich is not Dulwich Village, that wasn't very often) it was likely to be a Millwall top. The Southwark News billboards, when they were not talking about crime, which wasn't very often, would be talking about events at the New Den. Not having much of a liking for crime-led local papers, I didn't read it very often. Perhaps I should have. I would, then, have known about Constantine.
I never made it up there when I was living on their territory preferring Dulwich Hamlet where the absence of success caused little anguish, but my landlady's boyfriend was a fan and they did, therefore, impinge on my existence. They would have done so a great deal more had I known that Constantine was there with them, because I know Con of old. I knew him when we were at Oxford. As I said, before, you can't get away from them.
I wish I could. But I'll say this for Constantine: he's a football man. It is the only thing I'll say for him. Other than that he must be one of the most arrogant and self-centred men I've ever met. If he told me the date, I'd check the calendar: if he told me my name I'd check my birth certificate. If he told me he was interested in anybody other than himself I'd laugh out loud. He was a keen member of Oxford University Conservative Association, and every bit the braying public schoolboy that you would imagine. His favourite word to describe other people was "sound": in that accent and in the manner that he said it, it meant somebody who was supportive of somebody like him. It meant somebody satisfied that people with a great deal of money should maintain, or increase, their share of all the money going round. His comment on student hardship was that those suffering should "get a job": he did not of course have one himself. Not even a directorship. But somehow, he managed to get by.
This, it transpired, was because he held a large number of shares, ones which did not, as far as anyone could tell, derive from any investment decisions he had made himself or any remunerative employment he had undertaken. He was a trust fund boy, and like many people who live off unearned income, he believed that other people were not working hard enough. They needed to work harder and to complain less. He complained about it often.
But he was, as I say, a football man. He supported Manchester United before it was unpopular to do so, though to my knowledge he had never been there and in all probability had only the sketchiest of ideas as to where Manchester was, none of the major public schools being located in that city. (He also, as I recall, had only the sketchiest idea as to who Dave Bennett was when that player scored in the 1987 Cup Final. Con, watching on television, attributed the goal to Cyrille Regis, a player who resembled Dave Bennett only in wearing a Coventry shirt and being black.) He had a much more highly developed opinion (though one as woefully ill-informed) of his own abilities as a footballer, believing his skills to be substantial and his prospects of playing for the University to be substantial too. He might have made it, too, had his twopenn'orth of talent been matched by more than a ha'porth of speed. He was, alas, even less fit in the physical sense than he was fit to run a football club, and the last I remember he was playing for the second team, not even of the University but of the College.
It was not the last I heard of him entirely: I recall him, during Black Monday, panicking loudly because his aforementioned share portfolio seemed likely to be reduced to the aforementioned twopenn'orth. Reacting to the departure of his money as others react to the departure of a loved one, he was unable to understand why those less morally serious than himself seemed to find it funny. He rushed out of the room in some distress.
It is a small world, Oxford, a small world that seems to dominate the larger one, and they always crop up sooner or later. That was the unsurprising bit; the surprise was that he should emerge at Millwall. I hadn't realised he was connected with Peter de Savary, who recently took over the club. A man, Mr De Savary, of extraordinary ability, or so it would appear: there can be no other explanation for his enormous wealth or his apparent belief that he can both cut costs through player sales and yet put Millwall in the Premiership within five years. Rarely can such a talented man have had such an untalented factotum.
De Savary claims to be making "a short-term plan, a medium-term plan and a long-term plan", for Millwall. Were I a Millwall fan my first inclination would have been to worry, lest the first of these entailed making cuts, the second involved making money and the last of them constituted making an exit with the club no better off than it was before. And, so indeed, it might. Apparently the idea is to develop the surrounding area as part of a project which places the football club at the centre. The football club would be able to engage in property development, regeneration and all the rest of it, a highly profitable enterprise judging by the amount of it that has stretched across the Thames from Tower Bridge to Greenwich and beyond these past few years.
This would therefore make much money for the football club - or, at least, for the people who own the football club, reminding me of the recent experience at my own Oxford United where the owner was able to realise an eight-figure sum in profit while leaving the club a few places above relegation to the Conference and tenants in a stadium they no longer owned. Would Constantine Gonticas be party to something like that? Of course he would. Because Constantine is a football man, but Constantine is also a greedy man and a Thatcherite.
Perhaps he is not so talentless as I thought he was twenty years ago. He has, at any rate, a talent in making connections. De Savary - a former Referendum Party candidate, like Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe - is a good man with whom to have a connection. His other connections appear to include the Crown Prince of Yugoslavia and most of the government of that truncated and benighted country - and one Thor Bjorgolfsson, a billionaire and the richest man in Iceland (and, so I am told, one of the central characters in the advanced libel course of a leading London-based financial magazine: his reputation, I should like to stress, is absolutely unimpeachable). Wealth is the teat at which the greedy have to suck, and Constantine, it seems, has sucked widely and well.
He is, one assumes, wealthy himself - the phrase "Managing Director of..... [an] investment fund" is at any rate more often associated with wealth than with its opposite. In the terms in which Constantine thinks, he must have achieved all the success that he set out to have. He has made it, and at the age Tom Lehrer had achieved when he referred to Mozart. The investment fund and other companies besides, his contacts among the rich and royal and even his own football club to play with. It is what an Oxford education is all about.
And as for me - I am a thousand miles away, without a source of income and never sure whether to wonder what happened to the first part of my life, or to see what I can make of the second half.
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—But what words should I try to use? I should, by Constantine's standards, be jealous of him. I doubt that he could interpret my feelings in any other way. Success is the measure of man, and money is the measure of success.
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
But I am not jealous. Of what accomplishments could I be jealous? He has done nothing - nothing that I value, nothing for anybody save himself. Nor has he done anything that I could have done, nothing that I want to do. There is no shadow there, no other-me, no what-I-could-have-become. So there can be no jealousy. But there can perhaps be sadness. I am sad, though not for him. I am sad that people like Constantine find it so easy to prosper while other people - perhaps, the sort of people who watch Millwall - so often find it hard.
Sad, too, perhaps, that the sole purpose of an Oxford education should be to make somebody rich, though sad because that is the rule rather than the exception. We are told, in a Western world becoming increasingly unequal, that egalitarianism is the enemy of talent, that to hold back the rich is to hold back the best. But I have never thought that. I have always thought that elitism rewards the mediocre. And rarely has there been a man more mediocre yet more part of the elite than Constantine.