Thursday 2 September 2010

A lovely man

15st 7lb, 4.4 units. I was in London on Tuesday night to ensure that a train-related mishap did not prevent me from attending yesterday’s memorial service in Streatley-on-Thames for Alastair Campbell-Harris, the man who gave me my first job in public relations. As it was, I nearly missed at least the start of the service by accepting the offer of a lift from a kind former colleague, who evidently did not share my belief that one should add at least an hour to any estimate of journey times provided by online motoring guides or satellite navigation systems. He also gave inadequate weight to my warnings that St Mary’s was a small church (I knew that because it said so on its website) and that there might be a bit of an issue with parking (true, though at least someone had had the foresight to ask the hotel next to the church to throw open the gate to the field behind it, creating an ample overflow car park).

To be fair, it was all going reasonably well until we ran into the temporary road works and clearly more or less permanent congestion that I shall now always think of as representing Pangbourne.

We eventually puffed into the church at 12.02, shortly after the bells had stopped pealing and just as the vicar was beginning his recitation of The Naval Prayer. It would be an understatement to say that the place was packed; it was a bit like one of those lifts beloved of comedy sketch writers, where people tumble out in a heap whenever the doors open. Somehow we squeezed into the one remaining space, just inside the door.

What can I say about Alastair? I found him through a newspaper advert – was it in the Financial Times or The Daily Telegraph? – back in the late spring of 1983, when I was out of work and so skint that I was walking up to Kensington public library to read the papers, rather than buying them for myself. I was even sleeping on the rather uncomfortable sofa bed (well, more a fold-out sheet of thinnish foam, to be honest) in my own flat, as I had rented out my bedroom to a friend of my flatmate, on the assumption that I was moving to a new job and a new life in Scotland. Growing bored after five years as an investment analyst with one firm in the City of London, I had stupidly concluded that the way forward was a physical change of scene, and accepted a job doing precisely the same thing for an admittedly rather more prestigious firm in Edinburgh. Which offered, as I recall, a slightly smaller salary, without the company car to which I had grown accustomed. I must have been mad to accept. I must also be just about the only person in the entire history of the City to have announced that they were leaving for another firm and be told to work out my notice rather than being sent home instantaneously for a generous slab of “gardening leave”. I got away eventually, and spent a three week tour of the Far East gloomily reflecting that what was wrong with my last job was not the pay, conditions or people I worked with, but the fact that I was bored rigid with being an investment analyst. A problem that moving to Scotland was sure to do nothing to cure.

I started gently enough, with a week in the firm’s London office that was really not too bad, then I took the train up to Edinburgh, breaking my journey to visit some old friends in my home town of Newcastle. I was temporarily lodged in a sort of student house somewhere round the back of Haymarket station, otherwise full of eager trainee staff. It took me a while to get there because the address was Beauchamp Place and I adopted the English pronunciation “Beecham”. Eventually I had to spell it out for the taxi driver and he put me right on the way they did things up there.

I had arranged for all my personal mail to be forwarded to my new office, pending the acquisition of a permanent home, and was horrified when, on day one, several bills and other private letters were delivered to my desk, all removed from their envelopes. But I was even more disheartened by the fact that so many of my colleagues were – I’m sorry, but there is no polite way around this – Scotch. And even more so by the fact that they were the sort of Scotchmen who arrived at work on time, removed photographs of their wife and family from their desk drawers and arranged them before them, then took rows of pens out of their coat pockets and made a simply neat arrangement of those. And then sat there, diligently working away, until it was time to reverse the process at five o’clock. Despite the generally well-deserved reputation of Scots for extreme drunkenness, no-one seemed interested in sharing the three hour boozy lunches which had become my standard way of getting through the day in the City.

I lasted until about 10.30 on the morning of my second day, when I said that I had to nip out for a packet of fags, sneaked back to the student house to collect my stuff and caught the next train to London from Waverley. It was 24 hours before anyone even noticed that I had gone, and it took even longer for them to remember that I did not actually smoke.

So there I was, for the first time in my life, unemployed and in no position to fret about the niceties of a career. I needed a job, any job, so long as it paid some money. It was my absolute number two priority after getting into the knickers of the pretty blonde lady to whom I had rented out my bed. But at least, on the job front, I was eventually successful.

I first went to see a recruitment consultant and explained that my life had taken a wrong turn in 1978, when I had accepted one of my three job offers as a graduate trainee in stockbroking, when what I really should have done was take the offer from the advertising agency. (Sharps Advertising, it was, who specialized in advertising cigarettes. And they offered me 20% more than the best-paying broker, too. Given that I had no moral scruples about peddling cancer sticks, the only possible explanation for my behaviour can be insanity, once again.) The consultant sent me off for an interview with the research director of some high-powered agency in Covent Garden, who swiftly and correctly concluded that I was a lazy wanker. The consultant shook his head and suggested that I might try something a little bit less demanding: financial advertising, or perhaps public relations. He named a West End agency that did a bit of both and I had an inconclusive interview there. But then I saw the ad in the paper, wrote a reply in my neatest handwriting, and met Alastair Campbell-Harris.

Back in 1983 Alastair was a year older than I am now, but he seemed vastly greater in stature. Clearly old school, with his slicked back hair and his well-worn but beautifully cut blue pinstripe suit, he exuded posh charm. I liked him from the moment I met him. I also loved his place of work, the panelled, seventeenth century house in Red Lion Court off Fleet Street where Streets Financial was based. Our first interview went well, and so did the second, I felt. Until, at the close, Alastair introduced his chairman Ian van Ammel. That went all right, too, until IVA (as he was known) posed the killer question in true Columbo style just as I was leaving, “By the way, why did you leave Wood Mackenzie in Edinburgh?” I blushed, I blustered, because this key fact, clearly marking me out as a nutter, was the one thing I had been careful to exclude from my CV. I thought I’d blown it. So near and yet so far. I found out afterwards, when I received Alastair’s letter offering me a job, that they had known about it all along. That’s the sort of thing financial PR agencies do where analysts and journalists are concerned – or at any rate the decent agencies, if there are any of those left.

The job offer was not great – they matched my salary at the last London broker I had worked at, but without the company car or the 100% bonus I had grown used to receiving. On the other hand, the working environment was vastly improved and the conditions were little short of idyllic. As well as occupying one of the loveliest buildings in London, Streets boasted a series of meeting rooms well stocked with booze (at least two bottles of every spirit, for a kick-off, as the clients included both Grand Met and the Distillers Company, and it was essential to have the correct brand to hand if entertainment was being conducted on their behalf). Everyone started drinking with a snifter before lunch, and continued pretty much all day. Nearly everyone smoked, too. Alastair certainly did, more or less continuously, and with evident enjoyment.

And then there were the girls. I’m sorry to be so sexist, but there is no other word for it. These were girls. Much prettier girls than I was used to working with. And – here was the real revelation – once I had been there for a bit and perhaps acquired some professional polish and as much self-confidence as I have ever mustered, I made a truly amazing discovery. If, after a few polite preliminaries, I asked them nicely if they might like to sleep with me, some of them said “yes”. I was like a man who has spent weeks (though in my case it was years) trekking across the Sahara Desert and then suddenly fetches up at an oasis which not only contains water but the world’s best-stocked cocktail bar.

In short, Streets Financial was an earthly paradise. Never mind the salary: any heterosexual male who liked a drink should have been prepared to pay good money to work there. Not for the first or the last time in my life, I had truly fallen on my feet. When they exhaust the seam of Manhattan advertising in the 1960s, Red Lion Court in the 1980s can provide all the material for an excellent sequel to Mad Men.

As if that were not good enough, Streets was absolutely at the top of the tree, professionally speaking: the undisputed number one among financial PR agencies in London. In the three years I was there, I think I only took part in one new business pitch that did not succeed. In the 24 years I have tried to make a living out of PR since then, that success / failure ratio has been neatly reversed.

But what of Alastair, since this was supposed to be a piece about him and has turned into the biographical equivalent of one of those modern restaurant reviews that talks about everything apart from the sodding food. Well, he took me on to work with him and I sat in a small office with him and another wise, oldish PR man and their pretty young secretary, after whom I predictably lusted. I followed him doggedly around and absorbed a certain amount of his wit and wisdom but did not really make the connection that would allow me to pick up and run with it as an adviser in my own right. After six months, Alastair was pretty fed up and on the brink of sacking me, when another director stepped in and suggested that perhaps I should work with him instead. His name was Michael Sandler. My first major assignment was to prepare a new business pitch for a food retailer that was planning a stock market flotation. It was a hopeless task, as we had only been invited to pitch for form’s sake, by a merchant bank that always gave these jobs to its own pet PR firm. But as luck would have it, the retailer concerned was a Geordie baker called Greggs. Not only had I been brought up on their stottie cakes in Newcastle, I had also been taught to read at my primary school by the lady who later became Mrs Gregg. Armed with this superior local knowledge I scored an unlikely triumph and never looked back. My sex life started shortly afterwards.

Happy memories of Alastair include the way he relished good food. It is funny how random things imprint themselves on the memory, but I can still recall in some detail a lunch in an old-fashioned restaurant in Greenwich with a couple of new clients of about Alastair’s age, where we all wolfed down splendid roast grouse; the first time I had ever eaten it. Many more times we ate cottage pie and peas with a pint or two of bitter at the Printer’s Pie on the other side of Fleet Street.

I remember flying into Edinburgh and passing over the Rosyth dockyard, stimulating a flow of reminiscences about Alastair’s time with the Grey Funnel Line, as he liked to call the Royal Navy. I suppose he really introduced me to the necessity of regular air travel, which I have never liked. At one point he despatched me to Minneapolis for a few days, to tour the offices and repair facility of a computer leasing company we were floating. I had no idea why I was there, and neither did any of the people I was visiting.

“So you’re going to go back and write the prospectus, right?”

“No, your merchant bank is going to do that.”

Thinking back, he was clearly either trying to broaden my incredibly narrow horizons, in an altruistic spirit, or simply awarding himself a few precious days without my company.

Back in the UK, I vividly recall a two day tour of factories led by an HR director who was, without doubt, one of the two most unpleasant people I have ever met (and, oddly enough, the other one was an HR director, too). He had yapped on for nearly 48 hours about all the people he had sacked. How, asked Alastair, did he get on with the unions now? Oh, splendidly, came the reply; they knew it had to be done and they respect me for it. At this point Mr Twatt, as we shall call him, hailed a nearby shop steward and exchanged a cheery greeting, to underline his point. It was naturally Alastair who had the presence of mind to turn around shortly afterwards and clock the V-sign and look of utterly venomous hatred being directed at our departing backs.

There was no PR crisis that Alastair had not experienced, and on which he could not advise. He was unflappable, and that permanent twitch in his fingers was neither the result of nervousness nor, as many clients assumed, of being ever so slightly pissed, but merely the result of some sort of unusual nervous condition.

What lessons did I learn from him? Not the practical stuff, like how to write an arresting press release. I got that mainly from his much-loved and long-dead colleague Quentin Guirdham, a former FT journalist. (You might assume that a journalist, after consuming dozens of press releases a day throughout their career, would be able to draft one standing on his or her head. Let me tell you, after recruiting on that assumption, that it just ain’t so.)

No, I think what I learned from Alastair was the importance of impeccable organization and attention to detail, and of enjoying the good things in life. I would dearly love to have been able to copy his unflappable charm, too, but that proved utterly beyond me.

He was, as his son said in the course of an excellent address yesterday, quoting from a letter of condolence, a lovely man. I wish I had known where to write: I would have said the same.

Having said that, I had not actually spoken to Alastair for more than 20 years. The last time I ran across him, at a drinks party at The Observer, he refused to talk to me because I had, unsportingly in his view, returned to work in the City shortly after the final implosion of Streets Financial, and poached back some of the clients he had expected to take with him to Citigate, the new firm he had just founded. This might have seemed like Machiavellian cunning on my part; in fact it was pure coincidence. I had been living happily in a tiny, damp cottage in Northumberland for more than a year, pretending to be a writer, drawing a modest income from the proceeds of the sale of my London flat, which I had invested on the stock market. Then came Black Monday 1987, and the value of my small portfolio plummeted. At the same time, a proposal was approved to dig a bloody great opencast coal mine right in front of my rented cottage, so clearly I needed to move. It seemed sensible to go back to work, even though I had left it in 1986 with absolutely no intention of ever returning.

So there is another lesson: don’t bear grudges and always try to make things up. Alastair gave me a start in something from which I have made a pretty good living ever since, and it would have been good to be able to say “thank you”.

That is why, belatedly, I do so now.


CC said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this piece.
Life happens and no one ties up all the loose ends. But you've written a touching and clearly heartfelt tribute.

Keith Hann said...

Nice of you to say so. I meant to separate the heartfelt tribute from the rambling personal nostalgia, but decided that it was too much like hard work.

Thank you for your previous comments, too. I know that you are not the only person who reads this blog, but you are pretty much the only person who ever offers any encouragement. It is much appreciated.