Fancy boxes and poisoned patties


It is always nice to find a company with a nice old-fashioned name that has not been tortured into an acronym. So when I spotted that the chairman of the London Fancy Box Company had retired after 50 years with the firm, I rushed to the phone to find out more.

I was expecting just another business story. Instead Christopher Lawson - joint managing director, son of the retiring Timothy and fourth generation of the family to run the company - told me a lurid tale of deceit and poisoned fish patties that should surely be translated, with suitable overacting, on to the stage.

First, I should tell you what the London Fancy Box Company does. It makes fancy boxes, albeit in Dover rather than London. If you buy a large box of Milk Tray chocolates, you will possess a Fancy Box. If you buy a copy of Pink Floyd's Pulse album (here illustrated), you will have a Fancy Box - in this case a complex one, because it contains a flashing light. And if you buy a pair of false teeth, it will probably come in a Fancy Box.

Now to the melodrama. The year is 1913 and the London Fancy Box Company is jointly owned by Tom Lawson and Sholto Douglas. Relations between the two men have deteriorated, and when the Lawson family receive fish patties that make the family violently ill, Tom Lawson is convinced Douglas is responsible. The next year a heavy package is delivered to the Lawsons' house: Tom is suspicious and takes it into the garden, where it explodes.

Despite this, Lawson and Douglas keep working together until May 1916, when Lawson receives a solicitor's letter informing him that Douglas is dissolving the partnership. Soon after he is arrested to face accusations that he has been embezzling Douglas. After an eight-day trial he is acquitted, but Douglas keeps pouring abuse on him and also takes money from the business account. Lawson then takes Douglas to court, demanding recompense. He wins the case, which the judge says is "one of the most remarkable that has ever come before a Court of Equity", but Douglas disappears abroad without paying a bean. The Lawson family, which has just learnt that Charles, the eldest son, has been killed on the Somme, is impoverished. Tom sets to and rebuilds the business. Curtain.

But there is a footnote: in 1960 a man called Douglas calls at one of the company's factories and says he has a claim on the firm. He is referred to the lawyers, and is never heard of again.

I WAS interested to note that photographers at next week's big groove rave, the Mansion House Dinner, will have to wear black tie.

This reminds me of a story about a man who was refused entry to the RAC Club in Pall Mall because he was inappropriately dressed. He wanted to go downstairs to play squash with a chum, but the porter wouldn't let him cross the foyer because he was wearing ... squash kit. He had to ring his friend, who sent up his own suit. He put it on over his sports gear, went downstairs and played his match. The real problem came after the game when the two men had only one suit between them: they had to bribe someone to let them out of a fire exit.

Which all goes to show that etiquette and formality are splendid things. Well you do need a dinner jacket to take a decent picture, don't you?

The thirst in Thirsk

THE other week I was banging on about the brewers' habit of changing pub names, usually to something daft. Well, Vaux of Sunderland may think twice in future after running into a spot of bother in Thirsk, North Yorkshire.

Now Thirsk is where the late Alf Wight, better known as James Herriot, lived. He set his stories in a town called Darrowby, so Vaux decided it would be a wheeze to rename the Red Bear the Darrowby Inne. Personally, I am more offended by the superfluous "e", but the mayor and council took grave exception to what they saw as a brewer trying to cash in on Mr Wight's fame. He was a famously private man, and only at the end of his life revealed to the world that he was in fact Mr Herriot.

So when the brewer held its opening bash on Wednesday night, the civic dignitaries boycotted it. "The issue has split the town," my Thirsk correspondent tells me. "Some think it's a tribute, some that it's cashing in." He adds that he went into the pub on Friday morning and it was empty - though this could simply be because the hardworking burghers of Thirsk were working hard.

I HAVE had a disappointing response to my request for necessary products that do not exist, but should; it would be nice if we could come up with a few ideas because GNP is looking floppy again (more relevant to you, I have bottles of fizz bursting to be dispatched).

Laurence Manning has, however, helpfully written to suggest how my desired Swim Man (a radio I can listen to while swimming) could be constructed. He suggests I should contact Trevor Baylis, the man who invented the clockwork radio now in production in South Africa, to see if he can knock up a waterproof and portable version for me. Maybe I'll just do that thing.

By the by, entrants to the easyJet competition should hang on to their corsets - they've been launching their flight to Nice this week, so judgement day has been put off a little.

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