Tuesday, 24 January 2017

MENTORS

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Writing about my early years in London as a salesman [Antony Armstrong-Jones 21/01/2017] reminded me of those times. I rarely reflect about the person I was then but it got me thinking about the mentors who helped me at various stages of my life. Mr RMH Campbell who I mentioned in my piece was an early mentor, as were at other stages of my life and career:


My mother

Mr Gould

Mr Pan Hedley

Mr Ron Sterling

Mr Norman England
Mr John Seymour


And a major influence on the course of my life but probably not quite a mentor, Miss Anne Corner who I wrote briefly about recently in my post about Leonard Cohen [13/11/2016].



Mr RMH Campbell was my boss in NFR’s London office. He was from Edinburgh, to me incredibly posh and soft-spoken always dressed in one of his perfectly tailored Savile Row suits, with the most self-effacing sales ‘technique’ I have ever come across. I have had to put technique in parentheses because there wasn’t one: he muttered out of the corner of his mouth. If a client were to ask him, ‘Well, how much does it cost? How long will it last? Or, crucially, ‘What are the benefits?’ He would look horrified that someone would question his probity or not take his faith in the product as a given, because he had road-tested it himself. Then he would mumble some sort of reply . . . ‘We’ve just submitted samples to Lasdun’. . . and  the meeting would be over. It worked. No idea why, but the list of prestige projects we did was remarkable. Some of these mean nothing to people now but we did the Barbican [all of it] for Chamberlain Powell & Bon; Hyde Park Cavalry Barracks for Sir Basil Spence; all of James Stirling’s work, literally everything he did in his peak years, Cambridge Library, the Florey Building. Everything for YRM [Yorke Rosenberg Mardall] including Manchester Magistrates Court [now demolished] which I ran as project manager, Lynemouth, St Thomas Hospital, Warwick University.  

It’s a long, long list covering all the key London architects, mainly but not exclusively the genius Jews who fled Europe during the war. All done by muttering. I guess that was the language they were comfortable with. Me? I wasn’t a great salesman, not at all. Although I was very good technically and could project-manage competently I couldn’t make small-talk. Still can’t and London can and always will cut you down to size, crush and humiliate you then spit you out without a flicker of remorse.

Most of the other sales guys [always men in those days] walked the walk and very definitely talked the talk. Maybe I should have thrown in the towel but Campbell had faith, he gave me some of his lesser clients to work with and guided me in what they expected.

I owed him a lot and he was an important mentor in my life.



I got the job because Norman England, my predecessor had left. I never met Norman but one of the jobs he left behind was Lister Hospital in Stevenage which I was expected to run single-handedly. It was absolutely mega and with everything else I had on my plate, it was a time of working 24/7.

But later in life I went to work for Norman and he was a terrific salesman. Like me, he had no jokes, no small-talk but God did he know his stuff and if he didn’t have the answer, he would find out. He was so knowledgeable, so confident and frankly, so right that clients never wanted to deal with anyone else; competitors were shown the door, ‘Sorry, we only work with Norman England’. Precisely what he taught me is contained in an early section of my novel, Train That Carried the Girl when Kiri is taught by Delwyn about how to sell over the phone. Incidentally, we exchanged Christmas cards up until four years ago.



 Now is not the time to develop this because I want to talk briefly about Mr Gould, my teacher at school.

So many people I have known have told me they owe their success in life to a teacher at school who took them under their wing. Well, that is what happened to me.

I was useless at school. When I was age say, seven or eight years old if I wasn’t bottom of the class, I was certainly in the lower half. I was no good at maths, sums they were called then; geography didn’t interest me, nor did history or any sports. I was good even then at art, drawing not so much but I had a grasp of colour. Good at spelling and had an understanding of nouns and verbs and I think that was about it. When I moved up a year however I was undeservedly promoted to Mr Gould’s class which was where the top echelon of pupils were placed. The one’s that they had already written-off went to Mr Dye’s class [Killer Dye, he was called because of his frequent reliance upon the cane to keep pupils in line].

But there must have been design at work under the waves because Gouldie made me sit right at the front of the class, right by his desk where he could keep his hooded gaze fixed on me; I am supposing, and this purely later-in-life reflection, that I had potential and that they thought they could reach it. Okay, so . . . this is all a little Knausgaard but quite soon after that everyone in class had to troop out to the school yard and queue to be seen by the travelling optician in a large pantechnicon van, specially equipped for the purpose. And guess what, it turned out I had an astigmatism: I couldn’t see diagonals.

I had to be prescribed glasses. Didn’t want glasses; only geeks and weeds wore glasses.

Soon though I had glasses and one of my earliest and most vivid memories was that first week in class when I had to put them on and everyone would know. I didn’t wear them: I couldn’t. I sat with them held in my hand embarrassed to put them up to my face. Gouldie was teaching, pacing about and he stood large and omniscient right in front of me, still perorating. When we had to start writing down what he had been saying in our books, he called me over to his desk. Now what? But he couldn’t have been kinder. He had seen me holding the glasses out of sight and took it upon himself to say, don’t worry, everyone will get used to it by Friday and then I recall how he spoke about when he had first started to wear spectacles and how the rain would run down the glass and how miserable he was. I went back to my desk and put them on and of course I soared after that and never looked back.



In the next school, the Grammar School which was run like a minor public school, all boys, with masters in gowns and some of the bloodless older one’s with mortar boards the only teacher who took an interest in me was Pan [no idea] Hedley who  gave me straight A’s for my English essays. But I went into a different stream the following year and had another English teacher. I should record however that Hedley gave me a great deal of encouragement when I thought ‘everybody could write like this’ and honestly hadn’t realised that I was in fact quite good.



My brainy mother, who had had a classical education gave me a lot of time and attention. Her principal interest was History and she knew not only dates but who Darnley and Hepburn were. I have another early memory of being taken [by bus] to Bothwell Castle nr Blantyre so that she could see where Hepburn and Queen Mary held their trysts. She was good too on the Greeks. She loved poetry and could quote widely from Eliot and Yeats. Listened only to plays on the BBC Home Service [as was] and classical music on the Third Programme [as was]. Never watched TV. I can remember being home-tutored in maths; seven times seven is? 49. Seven times eight is? Errm. I always got stuck at fifty-six but I passed maths at GCSE O-level eight-years later, so it must have worked. I owe her so much; everything probably.



Finally, as far as business is concerned anyway Mr Ronnie Sterling my boss at Wares between the ages of 18-20. As difficult and jarring a personality as I have ever known. Almost, in fact probably worth a blog post of his own.

Short, stocky with thick ginger hair and eyebrows he taught me everything about construction, selling, doors, hardware, architecture, metals, everything. I never really knew him: unsociable would be an understatement. He had been in the Royal Navy and had risen to a fairly high rank, Lieutenant Commander I believe, just beneath Captain. He had earned good money owned his own house in a nice part of town; his wife whom I met only once was a headmistress at a good school. They had three children. No-one liked him, not sure I did. Looking back, I think he was a bit like me: self-contained; private, so he came over as all business, business and didn’t mix. He read a lot: biographies but you would have been pushed to find anyone at Wares who could even name a book, never mind read one so he was a bit of a loner. Also, given that he was a salesman and was out selling most of the working week he wasn’t around much to do any mixing.

He was a sadist, the only one I have met, sorry the only one that I have known, in my life.

He was still in the RNR the Royal Naval Reserve where he served as full captain. This was paid work but he had to give them about six weekends and two consecutive weeks in summer to sail the RNR ship to the Mediterranean and back. He returned with gleeful tales of some of the terrible tasks he had made the young ratings undertake, some of them quite life-threatening. I don’t remember them now but invariably they ended with someone cleaning up urine/sick/shit or drinking urine/sick/shit. Below decks in scorching heat.

Deviant behaviour of this kind isn’t unknown in the armed forces as Deepcut has shown all too well. There are pockets of a dark culture amongst NCO’s who exploit new young recruits but I have no evidence which suggests any of Ron’s wickedness was sexual. It includes violence, yes and bullying but my guess would be that if it were sexual, it would have revealed itself in the workplace and would involve some of the many young men and women Wares employed at that time and I didn’t once see or hear of Ron being accused of that. I am not na├»ve about this; I have seen it in other companies I have worked in when I haven’t had the power to do something about it, on one occasion, much later in life when my then MD Paul Hardy, a leering, degraded, serial feeler of young girls’ breasts and bottoms, propositioned one of my sales-ladies. Who was irreplaceable.  

Ron was made redundant by Wares. He was quite possibly the one man who could have saved the business from its later collapse if they had given him full reign. But like so much of British Management the bosses, the owners, hadn’t a clue and they decided to make savings on his salary and car by letting him go. He started on his own, made another ton of money and sold out for £12m about fifteen-years later.

He was brilliant and to have been mentored by Ron, for all his dreadful personality was a great blessing to me and my future development.



And that’s it. I was on my own after that, all the scaffolding gone, all the training wheels; everything, everyone who had taken some interest in me over the years to get me there was gone. It was just me now, although it would be another what? nine years before I started up my own business from the dining room table.  



Finally, I should mention my creative writing tutor, John Seymour to whom I have dedicated all three of my novels. Lucky for me, John and I hit it off from the start and he is such a terrific mentor and teacher that if you have just one gram of writing talent, he will bring it out. Mr Show-not-Tell.  Great guy.



I once worked out that I had mentored 104 people in my [business] life. Perhaps the subject of a future post.

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