Rothman - king size

Whenever I walk down Fleet Street now, with its frothing sea of coffee shops, I think of Nat Rothman, Sunday People leader writer and qualified lawyer. Nat liked to eat in upmarket restaurants in the Street and would always request, at the end of the meal, a cappuccino or an espresso, only to be told by the waiter that, sadly, no such beverage was available.

Nat’s rationale for his persistent request was that if he kept asking, one day they might have them.

Now of course, Nat’s wish has come true, and Fleet Street probably has more cappuccino outlets per square foot than anywhere else in the country. But it’s all come far too late for him.

An elderly and eccentric bachelor at the time I knew him, Nat lived in some splendour in a fabulously appointed flat in Eaton Square. When another special writer, Sandy Brereton, announced she was getting married, Nat said simply, ‘I was married once. I didn’t like it.’

He was of the firm opinion that married couples should have, at the very least, separate bedrooms and, ideally, separate flats. It was an idea that sounded very bizarre at the time although in later life I have come to see the advantages.

Nat came into the office on Fridays and Saturdays and during the week, he ran a Rent Tribunal, which occasioned the remark every week from Eric Leggett:  ‘How many widows have you thrown out this week, Nat?’  He would arrive at about 10 am, light up a huge Hugh Cudlipp-size cigar, polish off The Times crossword in about ten minutes and then go into the editor’s office to discuss leaders. By noon, he had usually handwritten two or three clever editorials, neatly encapsulating the editor’s opinions on burning issues of the day.

He would give them to the editor’s secretary to type up, and then it would be time for lunch. Most Fridays, Sandy and I would have lunch with Nat at Mario and Franco, a nearby Italian restaurant, now long gone.

Nat chainsmoked Havana cigars, so on the way to the restaurant we always had to call in at Weingott’s, the Fleet Street tobacconist, where every week the following invariable scenario would take place:

Nat: ‘Have you got any cheap Havanas?’
Salesman: ‘No such thing as cheap Havanas, sir.’
Nat: ‘In that case, I’ll have a cheap pipe.’
Salesman: ‘Certainly, sir. Over here.’
Nat, fingering the pipes: ‘How much are they?’
Then, wincing at the price:  ‘You used to have pipes for half a crown.’
Salesman: ‘That was long before decimalisation, sir.’
Nat: ‘Well I’d better have some Havanas, since you haven’t got any cheap pipes. But not Romeo and Juliet; they’re far too expensive.’

The salesman would then make a great show of pointing out the shop’s extensive selection of Havanas, which ended up, every time, with Nat buying a big box of Romeo and Juliets, muttering: ‘Just this once, then. But never again.’

Eventually, Nat had to have a quadruple heart bypass and was ordered to give up smoking before the operation could be performed. His doctor, however, took pity on him and allowed him just one cigar a month, which Nat used to get up at 4am to smoke, after counting down the days.

A thoroughgoing urbanite, Nat had somehow acquired a delightful cottage in Goudhurst, Kent, which had a large garden. Nat was no gardener himself but did not like mess and chaos, so employed a gardener, although he muttered endlessly about the expense and the fact the gardener was on benefits.

On an occasional table at the cottage was a bottle of whisky, a clutch of tenners, a couple of whisky glasses and a plaintive note saying: ‘Please, whatever you take, no damage.’ This was a note to burglars but so far as I know, Nat did not suffer a burglary.

Sandy and I sometimes visited Nat at the cottage and one day he revealed to us that he had a girlfriend of many years’ standing. He was about 63 at the time, and he asked us whether we thought he ought to marry her. ‘I’m just asking you girls for some advice,’ he said.  ‘As women.’

Given Nat’s publicly stated views on marriage and the fact that he was more than 30 years older than either of us, we shook our heads. We were of the opinion that 63 was far too old to get married after so many years as a single man, and in any case the idea of such elderly people marrying and possibly – perish the thought – having sex with each other at that age was too much for us to grasp.  Nat, who hinted in an oblique way that he and his lady friend were, in fact, having sex, took no notice of us and eventually did get married, ‘with great misgivings’ as he confessed, although the marriage turned out to be blissfully happy.

After Sandy left the paper to have a family, both Nat and myself became godparents to her children. Nat, as a childless Jew, found being a Christian godparent rather strange but did his best, coming across with fantastic gifts.

After his late-life second marriage to the glamorous Juanita, Nat retired, sold his cottage, gave up the lease on his Eaton Square flat, and moved to Cheltenham.

It is a great pity and a great loss that journalistic elder statesmen such as Nat, with their long sweep of valuable experience, are no longer employed on newspapers. As a young journalist, I greatly valued Nat’s input, friendship and company; for today’s equivalents, there are, sadly, no Nats around.

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