ONE OF the last robust English eccentrics has gone with the death of Caesar James Crespi, a man whom no one could imitate and few would seek to challenge. Vast in girth and with impressive intellectual muscle, his imposing presence was said to be recognised by most of London's cab-drivers, upon whom he relied for journeys to the corner newspaper kiosk or to Norwich Crown Court. When he moved from Kensington to Marylebone a few years back, it took weeks for him to remember his new address, but he only had to hail a taxi and say 'Take me home, my good fellow', and the driver would know where to go.
Crespi devoted his entire life to the law, which he both loved and respected. At the Bar he was said to have one of the sharpest legal brains of his generation, and latterly, sitting as Recorder, his sentencing was both judicious and unexpectedly compassionate. Along with Robin Day and Margaret Thatcher, he had been a pupil of the great Fred Lawton, and it was assumed he would rise to the very peaks of his profession. But he was without vanity or ambition, and content to serve the law with acumen, if with as little energy as possible. He was fond of quoting Oscar Wilde's dictum that when one feels in the mood for exercise, one should lie down and wait for the mood to pass.
The genius of James Crespi lay in the telling of anecdotes, a skill he based upon the premiss that truth resided not in accuracy but in artful embellishment. His stories often combined the wit of Sidney Smith and the wisdom of Dr Johnson, and the likelihood that they would be told more than once in an evening did not diminish their allure. He could quote whole chunks of Gibbon (his favourite passage dealt with Emperor Gordian II), and his acquaintance with ancient Rome was intimate and detailed. He claimed to be writing a history of the Second Punic War, but had never advanced beyond chapter one, which he re- wrote for amusement about 40 times in a hand which had no risk of being decipherable.
To those who did not know him, he might have appeared forbidding, and indeed he had little patience with humbug or cant and could spot the flaw in an argument when it was only half uttered. But he was a kindly man, much given to harmless laughter, and inimical to malice. He never tolerated disloyalty or graft, but otherwise was the most benevolent and forgiving of men.
Crespi was wholly at home in El Vino's until he took silk, and under the stairs in the Garrick Club, where he dined three times a week, lying fallow on alternate nights to have a pipe and a lump of cheese in his irreparably untidy flat. There he kept a dozen teapots to obviate the need to wash any of them, and his refrigerator was empty save for a mislaid book.
An IRA bomb outside the Old Bailey in 1972 knocked him over and would have killed him had he not been so fat. The surgeons told him that pieces of the bomb were still inside him, but that it would require a major archaeological expedition to find them and they were better left alone.
Crespi was subject to attacks of asthma which took him frequently to hospital, where he was alert to the sliding scale of the nurses' affection. When they took to calling him 'darling', he knew he was destined for the intensive care unit. It was asthma which felled him on Friday night, so debilitating that he suffered a heart attack in the ambulance.
James Crespi is destined to be recalled in conversation for years to come, at the Old Bailey, at the Garrick, and at the Connaught Hotel, where he was always first in to a mighty breakfast. He was a big man with a simple soul, courteous and benign.