The Chelsea Flower Show was Julian Hardwick’s annual sartorial barometer. If London was still chilly, Julian would attend bareheaded. But if the weather was warm enough at the floral beano for him to eschew a vest, then the financier would don his Panama hat.
The Panama was one of three hats Julian wore. He preferred to go bareheaded, but in the winter, if it was cold, he pulled on a black beanie. In the autumn, when shooting, he sported a tweed cap. And in the English summer, when the sun was shining, and at every opportunity when he was on a Continental holiday, he wore the Panama. The elegant Central American headgear, he believed, was a signifier of the stylish middle-aged Englishman abroad as surely as a pair of tiny Speedos wrapped around a well-sculpted physique identifies a Brazilian in his natural habitat.
Julian was very proud of his Panama. It was a medium-brim trilby made in Ecuador, which in 1981 had cost £65 from the St James’s hatters Lock & Co. His father had bought it for him as a 21st-birthday present to celebrate the extraordinary Ashes Tour when Ian Botham won the five Test match series for England. His old dad had paid extra to swap the hat’s black ribbon for a Marylebone Cricket Club “rhubarb and custard” number, thereby aping Julian’s teenage hero – and fellow Panama hat wearer – Mick Jagger.
Over the years, the sun and rain had turned Julian’s hat the colour of corn and frayed its band, while its shape could be said to have seen better days. The odour of fresh straw Julian associated with it was now purely a figment of his imagination, having long since been replaced with the scent of something rather more lived-in. All this mattered not a jot to Julian. In fact, his Panama’s age and condition made him love it all the more; he stayed as sweet on his trilby as his colleagues were on their vintage sports cars and mid-20th-century Rolex watches. As success came to Julian and his chums, and their clothes became more tailored and exclusive, his hat came in for more and more of a ribbing. One friend habitually compared it to a straw bale, while others said it made him look like Boris Johnson. This teasing only served to make him more determined to wear it, which he did at the Henley Royal Regatta.
At first, the stewards at the entrance to the members’ enclosure were of two minds whether to let him in, despite his Savile Row blazer and smart linen trousers. It was his friend John Ryan who came to the rescue, pointing out that Julian’s Panama was no more absurd than the pink caps perched on the top of the heads of the Leander Club members.
Julian was waiting on the riverbank for the men’s eights Grand Challenge Cup, a Pimm’s in one hand and a programme in the other, when a gust of wind swept through the enclosure, lifted the beloved Panama off his head and sent it spinning into the Thames. Without a thought for his safety, the financier charged down the bank after his titfer, slipped on the damp grass and fell forwards with a huge splash. The commotion alarmed the stewards, who were convinced he was “doing a Trenton” and trying to halt the Grand Challenge Cup in much the same way protestor Trenton Oldfield had managed to do at the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. Several burly officials splashed in after Julian and frogmarched him to the exit, despite his loud protestations. His hat, meanwhile, had slowly bobbed down the river, sailed under Henley Bridge and ended up in the reeds some yards from shore.
It took all Julian’s wits (and the promise of a robust bribe) to persuade a sculler to lend him an oar to try and coax his hat from the Thames. After some manoeuvring, he managed to dislodge the treasure from the reeds. But, at that moment, a boat’s wash caught the hat and, rather than sending it towards the shore, took the Panama out to the middle of the river. A boatload of drunken students spotted it, fished it out and took turns to pull it on their heads and ape the gestures of the London mayor. As they caroused past, water from their sloppy navigation splashed Julian from head to toe, conveniently hiding the tears that were rolling down his cheeks.