Category Archives: Music

The business of life (Chapter 20 – from a dark place)

Although I was no stranger to the death of loved ones, having already lost both my sister and my father and other close relatives, nothing had prepared me for the loss of my wife.  Yes, I had mentally rehearsed the situation over and over in my mind in the preceding months as her health continued to deteriorate, trying to imagine how I would cope. At the same time I had been desperately hoping that somehow she could survive and return to her former self.  But the reality of her death, the awful, aching sense of loss, was something horrifyingly new.  Without Jean and with the certainty that she would never return the house seemed emptier than ever.

Work seemed an irrelevance and I stayed away for several weeks, never phoning or attempting to keep up to date with what was happening.  There was a human side to Gregg after all and he made it known he wouldn’t push me to return before I was ready.  With my son away at school and my daughter often out doing the sort of things that teenage girls do, life seemed hollow.  I prowled the empty house in the evenings half expecting to receive some sign from the heavens that I was not alone but all that remained were reminders of the life we had shared.  One morning, sometime in October, I awoke to find the sun was shining and I set out on a new bike I had bought not long before in an effort to distract myself.  It was one of those magical, calm days when the sun shone as it only seems to do in autumn and I cycled deep into the Dales, soaking up the beauty around me.  The world was carrying on and I had to join in.  The next morning I returned to the office.

A welcome distraction came in the form of an invitation to run a session at a pan-European meeting of our HR directors in Geneva.  I decided to take a few days holiday, took my son out of school and together we drove to Switzerland.  Already a skiing enthusiast at the age of fifteen he cajoled a visit to a ski resort from me and a new ski outfit.  Following my session we drove to Les Diablerets only to find that the snows had yet to arrive and the sun was shining brightly.  “No problem,” beamed Alex, “there’s a glacier that’s open all year round.”  The following morning, subjugating my fear of heights, I joined him on the cable car that took us to 3,200 metres.  Alex quickly disappeared on a set of hired skis while I was content to sit on a terrace in the warm sun.  Surrounded by high peaks set against a deep blue sky, I read an old copy of Women in Love for the second time and felt at peace.

When I became Managing Director I had joined the industry trade association (the Lighting Industry Federation) sitting on the governing council (comprising some 16 CEOs of the largest members).  I had been a little over-awed initially, not only as the youngest member on council, but being the only one who had not spent his entire career in that same industry.  I felt I had been talked down to and treated very much as the junior.  So, having kept a low profile for the first couple of years was then astonished to be asked to take up the role of president.  At first I couldn’t work out what had raised my profile to warrant the appointment.  But by the time I made my acceptance speech and took the chain of office in one ofLondon’s oldest clubs overlooking The Mall and with a Government Minister as my guest, I had worked out what lay behind it.

Long held, polarised and explosive views were held across the membership on a range of partisan issues.  The association (which set technical standards for the whole industry and ran a highly effective parliamentary lobby group) was facing a particularly critical issue at the time that threatened to pull the association apart.   I perceived that none of my largest competitors wished to be seen to preside over an issue that could be a PR disaster for them.  Ranged against them were a large number of members (of smaller firms) in the association holding the opposing view.  Had I been elected as a scapegoat?  Was I being set up to fail?

Deciding on a policy of diplomacy for my year of office, I felt I had to ensure that all views on the subject were heard and taken into account before a decision was made.  I had clear views of my own as to which route the association should take but reasoned that making these views known was only going to make my task harder.  And anyway, I calculated that my own company could exist equally well under whatever regime emerged.  Attempting to force my views on council was not going to work given my image as an outsider who was believed to know less of the industry than anyone else around the table.  Therefore I decided that the process should take priority, be seen to be inclusive and fair and should lead to whatever the membership ultimately decided.

I ran my council meetings in the classic chairman’s style, ensuring that all views were fully explored but never revealing a viewpoint of my own.  I found that by a policy of correct process, questioning and ensuring everyone’s opinions were sought, all relevant opinions and options could be uncovered.  I carried this process through to the wider membership, travelling to regional meetings up and down the country.  At these meetings, where I again chaired the sessions to ensure that every aspect of the subject was explored, I also never revealed an opinion.  I also held one-to-one meetings with the holders of the most entrenched views (large and small companies), always travelling to meet them in their own offices.  At the end of the year when the time came for a decision, the vote was almost unanimous, with everyone feeling their view had been heard and considered with the right decision made.

One surprising and pleasing outcome for me was that several of those who had held some of the most rigid views at the outset felt able to cross over to the opposing side without losing face.  Additionally, the few members who voted against the final decision, came to me later and said that although disappointed they felt that the process had been fair and the decision was one they could support.

By this time I had found love and companionship again and had married Denise.  A hilarious and old fashioned event took place some months before our marriage that showed yet another face to Gregg.  Having taken Denise with me to an industry function in London, I had duly filled out my monthly expenses sheet and sent it off to Gregg for authorisation with receipts attached (why MPs and civil servants can’t go through the same simple procedure still eludes me). A few days later I got one of my lunchtime calls from Gregg, who proceeded to pose questions about the industry event and my accommodation arrangements in more delicate terms than his usual style.  After a lot of beating about the bush, and in a decidedly embarrassed manner, he shared with me his concern that taking a woman who was not my lawfully married wife to a hotel for an industry function would damage my reputation!  Even when I shared the date for our impending marriage he expressed his delight but wouldn’t budge from his ‘grave concerns’ in the interim!

I was happy at the good fortune that life had once more bestowed upon me. However, I began to recognise some fairly profound changes in myself that seemed to have occurred since Jean’s death.  My entire being had previously been focussed upon achievement of my business goals.  I was always clear and focussed upon what needed to be done and prided myself on logical and rational decision making.  The exception had always been my immediate family but looking back I realised that even with them I seemed to have been somewhat removed from a real understanding of their feelings and emotions.  I understood anger and rage well enough, having always been quick to be roused but as far as others outside my close family circle were concerned, nothing had ever really touched me. People must have felt me to be cold and lacking empathy in my decision making when they themselves felt understanding and compassion was called for.

Now, since Jean’s death, I found myself crying for the first time whilst watching films.  I remember sitting sobbing uncontrollably through Truly, Madly, Deeply.  Even music began to touch me on a deeper level than ever before.  Knowing my love of Bach Denise bought me a CD of the Brandenburg Concertos.  As I listened to the opening allegro of the 6th for the first time, tears flowed down my face at the sheer joie de vivre the music conveyed. It touched me in a way that I had never experienced before.  On these occasions it was as if a veil had been lifted from my senses and I was experiencing the colours, sounds and sensations of raw emotion for the first time.  I knew it was connected with Jean’s death but it was some ten years later before I could finally begin to understand what had happened.

In an effort to improve selection of candidates for key roles in the businesses I was then running, I started a process of qualification for a range of psychometric instruments.  In the qualification process for one, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, I was assessed as an ENTJ (Extraverted Thinking with Introverted Intuition).  Without going into a lengthy explanation, I found that there was a ‘shadow’ or hidden side to my behaviour.  As it was the fourth and least preferred of my four key behavioural functions, my preference for ‘Feeling’ in decision making was underdeveloped.  Whilst someone who has ‘Feeling’ as a preferred function for decision making would be sympathetic, tender hearted, assessing impact on others, compassionate, guided by personal values and be striving for harmony, these were not behavioural qualities I had ever used.  These underdeveloped aspects of behaviour (which differ from person to person) are referred to as the ‘shadow side’ of behavioural preference, usually only being revealed at times of great stress or under the influence of drink or drugs as behaviour completely unnatural to the individual.  Being unfamiliar in using this side of my personality it was manifesting itself in almost childlike ways.  I can still cry at films that reveal emotion but over time I have also learnt to understand others in ways that would never have occurred to me previously.  Life is richer as a consequence but sometimes much more complicated now I can see more than one perspective!

When Martyn left I hadn’t replaced him feeling at the time that none of his team (good as they were) was ready for the role he had carried out and I didn’t wish to bring an outsider into the company.  I already knew the majority of our medium and large customers well and built on these relationships with regular visits.  I maintained a regular schedule of visits to major customers by accompanying our regional managers or sales people on their visits.  In this way I was able to demonstrate my commitment to customers and sales force and, importantly, ensure I was hearing directly from both on their views concerning our strategies and service compared to competition.

One of the strangest situations I ever had to manage was that with our largest customer.  The owners (tax exiles) worked initially from beautiful offices overlooking the lake a few kilometres outside Geneva and then moved to Monaco where the tax regime was even kinder.  They had built one of the largest electrical distribution businesses in the UK and were spreading across Europe but had the strangest (and possibly the most Machiavellian) management structure and systems I had come across before or since.  There was no one person in charge of the UK and buying was spread between four regional general managers.  The buying process (designed to drive price down) was in fact so fragmented that, despite their size and potential clout, they were paying prices considerably above anyone else of their size (and many smaller firms).  Whilst I enjoyed the profits that flowed, at times their purchasing was so out of line on price I had to feed the senior management with a series of hints that would then lead them to ‘put the squeeze’ on me.  I just couldn’t run the risk that they would find out how terrible their prices actually had become!

I was now totally immersed in and enjoying every aspect of my role.  But whilst I was widening and deepening an understanding of my colleagues, our customers and the industry and steadily improving results, events were quietly and inexorably moving towards the most challenging set of circumstances I had ever had to deal with.

The business of life (part 3 – another false start)

My sister worked at the time for Unilever in the grandeur of corporate headquarters in Blackfriars.  Home one evening, she announced that having spoken with the personnel department they had said they would interview me.  Having spent the last three months convalescing and generally treating myself gently (very gently in fact) I had to admit that I should really start the process of getting back to the world of work.  Meanwhile, my consultant had sternly instructed me that brass instruments were no longer a part of my life:  ‘Too much pressure on that lung, laddie’.  So, the much loved trumpet had been part-exchanged one afternoon in the Charing Cross Road for a classical guitar and I was already making great progress with my lessons.

Suitably sombrely suited, my interview went well enough and I found myself taken on as a trainee accountant in the Central Accounts Group.  My new boss was a remote ex army officer who barely recognised the existence of his new lad and I was quickly assigned to Mr. Crabbe his chief clerk.  Nothing much seemed to happen in our office for the first couple of weeks and a stultifying boredom soon settled upon me, interrupted only by dear old Crabbe’s routine.  At precisely 11.25 each morning, he would rise, take his paper and disappear off for precisely 35 minutes (I later found this was to Lyons Corner House where he ate the same dish at the same table each day).  When he returned he would sit upright in his chair and close his eyes for the remaining 25 minutes of his lunch hour.  With nothing else to do each day I was told to busy myself with the FT,  Stock Exchange Gazette and the Investor’s Chronicle.  Unfortunately, not a lot stuck.

An organ playing bachelor of advancing years Crabbe was a man of stern habit.  The first week of a new year would see him off to his tailor to be measured for a new suit which, when delivered, would form his ‘best’ for the serious responsibility of organ playing at his local church.  The old, best suit would then be worn to the office for the next year each day. Finally, his old office suit would then become essential garb for gardening duties.  Finally, the previous year’s gardening suit would soon be on its way to the church jumble sale.  Crabbe soon had me carrying out a regular programme of mental arithmetic each day and Mr. Michael, my boss soon had me crunching endless numbers for his new investment appraisal tool – the discounted cashflow.  I was never informed what the purpose of these number s was but got into trouble one day for shrieking with laughter when I read the detail of one project that referred to “a massive erection in Yorkshire” (it being a grain silo). For one week each month and three weeks each year the office routine became hectic as we went through the process of monthly and annual consolidation of the many operating company accounts and budget.  Staffed up for the peaks, the age of cost-cutting had yet to dawn.

With the sole window in our office looking out onto a light well, my horizons were literally inhibited (although the same was not true of my efforts to acquaint myself with the better class of young female employees this vast conglomerate employed).  Lunchtimes saw my cohort of fellow serfs (which now included said female company) dining well in our allotted staff restaurant of which there were 5 levels of ascending quality for the many layers of management.  Evenings called for study in book-keeping and economics.  I told myself I was living a more wholesome life, going early to bed, keeping good company and bettering myself.  The saving graces were that my guitar playing was progressing well, the company dentist had put right my years of oral neglect and I had acquired my first car and passed the driving test.  New horizons beckoned.

Worthy as the accountancy profession undoubtedly was, I decided it just wasn’t for me; I just had to get out into a more exciting and challenging world.  With not a word to my boss, I marched into the personnel office one day and announced that I thought that my talents would be much better employed as a salesman in one of the operating companies.  ‘Well,’ they said without to-do, ‘If that is what you think you are suited to, we’ll have to organise some interviews for you.’  True to their word, a week later I was informed that I should present myself for interview with a Mr. McColl the Sales Training Manager at the offices of Van den Burgh and Jurgens, the group company that made and marketed edible fats and oils (margarine and cooking fats to you and |).

Shortly before the allotted hour, I presented myself at the reception desk resplendent (I thought) in my very newest and most sober suit and was told to proceed to the 8th floor.  Waiting for the lift, I noticed a dour looking and completely white-haired elderly man limp across the lobby straight towards me, whereupon he stopped, stared intently at me with the most piercing blue eyes I had ever seen, walked a complete circuit and barked, ‘Hair’s a bit long, laddie!’  We proceeded in silence to the eighth floor where I realised, with some horror, that this was the said McColl when he ushered me into his office.  I was directed into a chair opposite his with the mid-morning sun directly in my face.  What followed was a series of quick fire questions that I thought I handled very well.  Then, with an engaging smile, he asked my about my interests. I let my guard down and mentioned cars, amongst a few other things.  Seizing upon the motoring interest, I was immediately probed as to the exact number of time the pistons went up and down in a four stroke engine; I replied ‘twice’ getting confused under a very swift change of mood.

What followed were some of the worst moments of my young life.  ‘You’re wrong, laddie!’ my tormentor spat out, ‘And, worst than that, you’re bloody arrogant with it!’  My memory is still tortured at the defence I put up, frantically trying to explain that I had been referring to the number of complete cycles of a piston. ‘Enough!’ he roared at me, ‘This is a bloody farce and I’m going to get our Divisional Director down here to see the rubbish I’m being sent these days.’ He reached for the phone and made the call in even more explicit terms ending with, ‘You should get down here now and see for yourself before I throw him out.’  Long minutes passed in complete silence as McColl’s pure blue eyes continued to bore into me, I swear without ever blinking once.  The door then burst open and in came an equally white-haired and very distinguished Frank Cryer.  The grilling continued for what seemed an age whilst I tried to convince them both that a simple error had occurred, I wasn’t arrogant in the slightest and that I did really have what it took for a career in sales.  Silence followed for what, again, seemed an age.  They, then, both looked at each other, smiled and Frank Cryer said, ‘Well, done.  We’ll get you on the next training course.’ And rose and shook my hand.

 A career in sales was about to start; could I hack it?

Image courtesy of Stanhope Plc

My life in business (chapter 2 – a false start)

You could say that I had it easy when, at the age of fifteen, I walked straight into an office job.  Many of my neighbourhood contemporaries followed fathers and uncles into ‘the print’ (nepotism was and is not the exclusive practice of the upper classes it is portrayed to be today).  Still they earned comparatively vast sums, sharing the cash proceeds of additional & fictitious men signed on for the particularly lucrative Saturday night-shift under such names as M. Mouse & D. Duck.  Little did they know their future as they waited unknowing for Messrs Shah and Murdoch to make dinosaurs of them.  Well, perhaps I did have it easy at first; with unemployment hovering around a genuine level of 350,000, competition for jobs was low.  But did it ensure I was set up for life?  Did it mean career success would surely follow?   That was something else, which as we’ll see was far from straightforward.

 Work in the swinging sixties started well for me.  Learning the basics of clerical work in the world of industrial and consumer finance at the Mercantile Credit Company was easy enough.  The language, culture and scams of the industry were quickly assimilated and I was soon made assistant to the office manager and commuting into central London on my first motor bike (my first experience of the NHS A & E service following soon after). The routine was stultifying and even the typists were boring.  One highlight full of excitement was being despatched to repossess an ageing Lambretta from an unsuspecting debtor.  But parallel to my commercial endeavours was a social world that was exploding into espresso bars, pubs, rock and roll, jive, miniskirts and a growing lack of deference to the establishment that was especially refreshing to an ex catholic organ pumper fluent in church Latin pronunciation.  Penguin’s publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover did much to provide additional and extremely relevant study material.

London’s music scene was exploding.  My haunts soon became the 100 Club, the Marquee, the Flamingo, the 51 Club and Eel Pie Island.  Flush with money, or so it seemed, I lived a double life.  I spent money on sharply tailored bespoke suits for the office where I tried hard to appear successful, but office hours over, a carefully cultivated downbeat style was adopted for nights out.  I still drank with my old South London friends in various local and East End pubs on Friday nights but my alter ego would meet with a group of more eclectic friends in a variety of West End and Hampstead coffee bars and pubs. I was never much of a drinker though, and it would be a rare occasion when I was not sober.  A hard drug scene had also blossomed into the mainstream of the London club scene but it never, ever, even tempted me.  My avid reading of the lives of my jazz and blues heroes had taught me that it was drugs that usually destroyed talent.

Carried away with the London jazz scene, I bought a trumpet and having soon gathered sufficient fellow adherents to the New Orleans style, I formed a band, the Storyville Shakers.  With enthusiasm exceeded only by an execrable lack of talent, we tried hard to swing into the London scene with a Sunday lunchtime appearance at a pub in decidedly unfashionable Lambeth.  The experience soon provided my first encounter with an iron law of music; organising a band is worse than herding cats – leadership 0, anarchy 1. I continued playing, sitting in with any bands I could.  A highlight was an afternoon spent playing in a band on the Aldermaston CND March.  I still remember a soaring solo I made (cribbed note perfect from a treasured record) on ‘Just a closer walk with thee’ as we marched past the Houses of Parliament. I had rebelled enough to have made a statement (or so it seemed at the time).

Soon, a serious manifestation of the World’s risky existence settled on my consciousness in the form of the Cuban Missile crisis.  Huddled over a pint in the Lamb & Flag in Covent Garden with the Evening Standard trumpeting imminent nuclear annihilation, I feared my life was over before it had begun.  However, a few long days later, the crisis passed when Khrushchev blinked first.London resumed its swinging and I was able to concentrate on succeeding in both job and social life.  But, despite the success of the social revolution, there were still only 24 hours in a day and every one was taking its toll on me.

On a rare evening when I had actually gone to bed before midnight (if at all), I woke choking and coughing violently.  Switching on the light revealed a scene more a slaughterhouse than a bedroom; I was haemorrhaging. The coughing itself was nothing new; it had been with me for months along with a severe reduction in weight.  A few days before, finally realising all was not right, I had taken myself off to the doctor, been examined and referred for an x-ray that same day (things in the NHS worked back in the Sixties). Seated that afternoon in front of a fatherly looking consultant, he informed me that I had a shadow on my right lung and that it was TB.  The shock ratcheted up when he wanted to hospitalise me that same afternoon.  Blind panic set in; my world really was ending.  How could I just go into hospital that same day?  I argued and pleaded for a few more days to pull my mind and my affairs together. My pleading worked and I spent the next few days telling my girlfriend, band, other friends and employer that I was going to be away some time. That delay was a big mistake.

Whisked away in an ambulance with bells clanging (that’s what they did in those days) I was incarcerated in Grove Park Hospital, a TB sanatorium in South-east London, for what was an indefinite period.  Originally built as a workhouse over a century before, the building retained an all pervading grimness throughout.  The initial shock of restriction of liberty was far greater than that of the bloody incident itself.  Once I adjusted and gave myself over to my narrowed horizons, life was not too bad; apart from my backside which was fast becoming a pincushion from daily injections of the then wonder drug streptomycin (which was going to have very unfortunate side effects years later).

Daily ward routines were made tolerable by a delightful young Irish trainee nurse who used to chat to me (whenever Sister was safely out of sight) and share tales of her fumbling attempts to learn the art of injections with the aid of an orange.  Several days later Bridget arrived looking exceptionally nervous.  Sister declared that nurse would be giving me my injection that day.  Oh, shit! Her very first live attempt!  Buttocks bared, teeth & cheeks clenched and desperately trying to remember which of the many saints to whom prayer was likely be the most efficacious, I was most painfully impaled.  Slowly, over the next few weeks, the cough departed and weight started coming back.

My fellow inmates and I soon settled into a routine of sorts.  We all had to produce a urine sample on a weekly basis and much discussion and ribaldry centred on the varying colours and hues of our productions, lined up on the window ledge in the bathroom on Monday mornings.  Ours was a large ward with few patients, simply me and a young Jamaican lad, two Pakistani seaman and a middle aged Greek shopkeeper whose command of English seemed to be based around the ceaseless use of the interrogative “innit?”  One day a month or so into my confinement our tranquil existence was shattered by the arrival of an Irishman of the peripatetic persuasion.  Possessed of a particularly aggressive nature, he soon disrupted our harmony and confirmed the stereotype by disappearing one afternoon only to return late that evening.  He was not just drunk but roaring drunk, alternating bouts of atrocious singing with random acts of aggression.  The night sister merely attempted a feeble admonishment before locking the ward doors and leaving us to it.  A wretched and sleepless night followed.  My first encounter with the caring side of the nursing profession.

 One afternoon my old boss arrived and stayed long enough to tell me that I had been fired, leaving me with my ‘cards’ and a bag of grapes.  After several months I was informed that I would be able to take short walks in the grounds; oh, joy!  Clad in now ill-fitting clothes I wandered the gardens surrounding the hospital soaking in a state of semi freedom. Illcared for and downright scruffy the gardens might have been but to me they were a paradise found for reflective thought.  I soon decided that life was going to have change completely.

One bright winter morning some weeks later, I was discharged back into the world as a changed person with no career.  What now?

Image courtesy of FFFFound.com

Instruments of torture

As it’s summer and were’re at peace with the world (personally speaking and despite the economic and political mayhem) today’s post is merely few thoughts on a couple of things that come to mind.  One of the joys of being of a certain age and having time on one’s hands is that one can turn those hands to things new, or nearly new in my case.  Sitting around a couple of weeks ago, I was cursing the fact that my fingernails really needed cutting; they grow like weeds you see and it’s a chore that is, well, just a chore.

A thing of beauty (in the right hands)

However, it started a chain of thought that went like this; I used to have long nails on my right hand when I played classical guitar.  I still have a guitar in the loft (though it’s probably ruined by mice or damp by now). Hhhmmm, wonder if I could learn to play again, then I only need cut the nails on my left hand.

So, up in the loft I went and with surprising ease located said guitar (still in it’s case) and with guitar tutors and all.  Once back in my den, I found the guitar was in amazing shape although way out of tune.  Why not? I thought, you have the time.  So before the feeling wore off, I had located a guitar teacher Chris Marks  (just near me) who clearly understood the classical guitar (if you go to his web site you can listen to some mp3 files).  So, two weeks in, the fingertips on my left hand hurt like hell but it’s slowly coming back.  I’m almost a complete novice once more (not having played for over 40 years) but it’s great to learn.

Speechless at this!

Having been getting progressively deafer for 20 years now I have supported the Royal National Institute for the deaf (RNID).  I can still hear the guitar with the aid of the finest aids that money can buy but this left me (to resort to a still intact function) speechless.  The above is the result of the old RNID re-branding itself.  Now I have seen some real howlers in the field of corporate re-branding exercises but nothing quite like this!

While I get back to my guitar practicing (I have my sights set on a particular lute suite by Bach), tell, me; have you ever seen anything quite like this!???