DJ Taylor: Sir James Pendlebury occasionally concedes that his career was really very tedious


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Visitors to the big house at Berkhamsted, watching Sir James Pendlebury deadheading his roses or quizzing Lady Pendlebury – now rather deaf, alas – about the supper menu sometimes wonder how he came by his knighthood and dazzling career in London EC2.

The answer, as Sir James has sometimes observed when giving away the prizes at his old school or handing out awards to promising young accountants, is by diligent hard work and application. He might not have been the most brilliant trainee that Messrs Tender & Mainprice of Lothbury ever engaged, but he was certainly the most assiduous.

The seeds of this incremental rise up the bean-counters' ladder were sown at Podger's Academy, a small private establishment in the West Country, where Pendlebury minor, as he then was, enjoyed the respect and admiration of the teaching staff. If he was not a particularly clever boy, then, as everyone agreed, his application did him credit. It was the same at Cambridge, where, while his contemporaries grew their hair and acted in garden productions, JP, as people were now encouraged to call him, attended meetings of the Economics Club and stayed up in the long vacation to work on his statistics paper.

The long-haired actors are all nursing their livers now, or reckoning up inadequate pension pots. Sir James, on the other hand, rose to be Tender & Mainprice's senior partner, chair of a Government enquiry into accounting standards and, fortuitously – one of the City magnates ahead of him in the queue of aldermen having died, the other scuppered by an insider-dealing scandal – Lord Mayor of London. Not bad, as Sir James tells himself, for a boy from Sittingbourne.

On the other hand, none of this, as he occasionally concedes, usually when catching sight of his worn reflection in the mirror, ever gripped his imagination. Auditing company accounts was, in the end, really very tedious. Even Lady Pendlebury, alas, can be dull company on a winter's afternoon. As for the social events that Sir James – more or less retired now, but still showered with invitations – is bidden to attend, there are times when the annual dinner of the Cordwainer's Company seems like the third circle of Hell. Nothing, of course, is quite so relative as success, but it may be that all those insouciant boys he knew at college, those novel readers and red-wine quaffers, had the last laugh.