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