April 11, 2014 6:20 pm

Ho Chi Minh’s dirty shoes and Fidel Castro’s modesty

‘I’ve seen ambitious networkers palm off their name cards to the Prince of Wales – and even the Queen’

A reader has barked at me for praising the onyx in the lavatory at Aspinall’s in London: “Onyx? A bit nouveau, but what would one expect in a gambling den?” Actually, a lot, since onyx was first mentioned in Genesis for God’s sake. Later Pliny the Elder wrote about its beautiful quality and if my reader needs any further contradiction, he should look up Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic, which is a Unesco world heritage site built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the late 1920s. Its beautiful translucent onyx panel wall in the drawing room is a classic and far from “a bit nouveau”.

A more sensible reader has commented on the bonus of a shoe-shining machine in a loo. I have always been in favour since a proper gent should always be shod in well-polished shoes. Indeed, on the letters page two weekends ago, a correspondent wrote about the loo I have at one of my clubs and the extraordinary shoe-shiner who sits outside ready to resuscitate even the dirtiest pair of shoes, while the patron reclines in a supremely comfortable chair with an electronically operated massage mechanism. This master polisher is the Bruce Lee of shoe-shining. He first delivers a dexterous circular movement with two fingers dipped in almost half a tin of polish, before launching a vehement attack on the triangular end of a shoe with a cloth that slaps and snaps mercilessly across it, ending up with a bruising sheen. He has been with the club for 23 years and proved more popular than special fried rice. If ever I were to be laid out in a coffin, I would want my shoes to be showing, glossy and burnished, unlike the shabby and dusty pair I noticed on the embalmed Ho Chi Minh [Contrary to D. Tang’s wild claims, the internet reveals images apparently showing Ho Chi Minh devoid of any shoes. Thrilled that I had rumbled Tang I emailed him. This was his response: “Not when I was there with Jimmy Goldsmith 30 years ago!” – Ed.].

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David Tang

. . .

Cinema seats nowadays are extremely comfortable, especially the reclining ones in Hong Kong. It is also going that way in London. But seats in concert halls and theatres remain in the Flintstone era – tight and uncomfortable. Considering concerts, plays and operas last longer than films, isn’t there room for a radical design?

I couldn’t agree with you more. I am perennially cramped at a concert or play. Bayreuth is perhaps the worst with its wooden seats and no arms, especially when Wagner is not exactly a paradigm of brevity. It really is high time for designers of theatres and concert halls to produce seats with much more room. Of course I hear the usual objection of capacity, but then just build larger auditoria. I’d much sooner travel out of a prime area to a location where lower rent is charged but the seats are significantly more spacious in a bigger space, than to a central location where the high rent dictates the financial constraint of having to build seats resembling sardine cans. I pine for the day when I can recline in supreme comfort for a Nicholas Nickleby play or the St Matthew Passion, and not having to emerge at the end with my body aching all over and limping like a crab without a claw and a leg.

I think it was in St Petersburg (maybe it was the Mariinsky) that I witnessed a royal box in which a chaise longue was strategically positioned below a full mirror tilted at an angle that captured the entire view of the stage in reflection. This would enable someone lying on the chaise to watch and hear what was going on. I would love that.

. . .

What are your thoughts about people going round dishing out their name on business cards to those they have just met, typically at a cocktail reception?

The whole business of dispensing name cards at cocktail receptions is pretty infra dig. Some people even put their faces on the cards while others feel the need to register everything with which they are involved and present a folding card with a long list of companies and institutions, one being more meaningless than the next. What makes me laugh most, however, is when I see ambitious networkers palming off their cards to someone like the Prince of Wales or, as I once witnessed, the Queen. What, pray, is the point of that? I once had a dawn meeting with Fidel Castro after which he gave me a box of cigars with his name card attached. The card confirmed that he was the President of Cuba. Come to think of it, it was a modest gesture on his part not to expect people to know who he was, and so it was a rather smooth thing for him to have done.

I would like readers to post comments and questions online at the end of articles rather than via email. That way we can have a debate of spontaneous and dynamic responses.

Visit ft.com/life-arts/david-tang

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Letter in response to this column:

Buildings and the beauties of onyx / From Mr Christopher Bellew

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