Doing some personal archiving, I found this piece I wrote for Deborah Orr at the Guardian's Weekend supplement, on management culture - and part of the pre-reverberations before the New Labour victory in 1997.
In retrospect, I'm struck by how it sparked my interest in the cultures of work, business, creativity - and then play - which have obsessed me ever since. And rather movingly for me, I'd forgotten my late dad - a low-level British Rail manager - made a closing appearance in it, with probably the only dialogue of his I had ever transcribed. And whatever happened to Jack Black? Hope you find it interesting. ---PK
THE COMPANY WE KEEP
The Guardian, 25 May 1996
The gurus of management culture predict that `intuition is the master skill of the next century'. As a clarion call to Britain's wealth-makers, it has a nice ring to it. But at Asda HQ in Leeds, they find a toy dustbin does the job just as well
THE psychic bullets are flying everywhere. Three hundred palms rise from grey flannel suits and cream silk blouses, all eager to receive little pellets of positive energy from the guru on the stage who's cocking his fingers like a cowboy on the draw. He bends into the radio mike.
`Many of you will have come with me on this journey of the imagination,' booms Jack Black, the UK's number one Motivational Speaker For Businesses And Organisations. `Did you feel those bullets?' From the general rustle of sighs and soft giggles that sweeps through the hall, oh yes, yes, they did.
The advert on the business pages merely promised `another way to inspire your workplace team'. By brunch-time on the first day, I'm sharing a shimmering New Age moment with Edinburgh's pen-pushing finest. What is management culture in the Nineties getting up to?
Within this £350-a-skull, Next-tailored ashram, anything it wants would seem to be the answer. Jack Black, Easterhouse social worker turned business evangelist, has a whole circus of mind tricks for his audience today.
Hulking great project managers are sapped of their strength by `negative thinking'. A bottle of Perrier is sloshed over the first four rows to illustrate how we `waste our precious daily energies'. Invisible bell-jars drop over heads (to the sound of the Thunderbirds theme tune), so that their wearers can `screen out moany-faced gits'. We salivate at imaginary lemons, we cleanse our minds in spring showers, we practise office meditation, all between morning and afternoon tea breaks.
`World-class companies require world-class people,' says the guru, gravely. `And remember, you're a one-off. You are special. You can be world-class.' He might be Billy Connolly without the jokes; Krishnamurti in a Sock Shop tie. But it's precisely through his crowd-pleasing performance that Mr Black reveals the essential nature of modern management more baldly than anyone else.
On one side, it's all about liberation and self-expression. Black brandishes copies of the mystical best-seller, The Celestine Prophecy. `Intuition is the master skill of the next century,' he claims. `Five hundred of America's top Chief Executives cite it as their most helpful managerial quality. But do you know what? They're too embarrassed to tell their colleagues.'
We are enjoined to forego coffee, reject muesli, do quality relaxation, make time for our children. And, above all, use the right hemisphere of the brain rather than the left: `That's where your ideas come from, that's where you love success ... Branson is right-brain, Roddick is right-brain ...' Holding up a thumb, Jack invites us to gaze into the whorls and treasure our uniqueness. Like a convention of trainee children's presenters, 300 thumbs go up, glowing under intense scrutiny.
On the other side, management is all about insecurity, mental policing and vicious competition. The folk devil of the day is `the wee man from China' who lives in a tiny room, works 12 hours a day in a factory, does repetitive labour for minimal wages and gets one weekend off a year with his betrothed. Jack Black saw him on a nightly news programme, presented as a horror story. `But you know what they missed?' he muses. `They missed the fact that he had a smile on his face. He loved his job and he loved his life. When that wee man in China finally wakes up, he is coming after us. And he will wipe us out. Destroy us. Unless we change our way of thinking and living completely.'
Today we have sampled the full product range of the spiritual-holistic marketplace. And why? To equip us to fight a bitter capitalist war with the Asian tigers and monsters of the next century. Our guru has shown us how to release the secret resources of the self. Now it's exploitation time.
This involves a kind of self-imposed thought control. There are rules. Don't use words like `problem' and `not bad'. Replace them with `opportunity' and `fantastic!' `If I say, `I'm tired,' therefore I am tired. Meanwhile, it's the little guy from China who can smile.' Don't consume any news for a month, Black suggests - no Paxman, no broadsheets, no morning radio. `You know the old computing phrase: Garbage In, Garbage Out. And you can't afford that kind of negative stimuli!'
I've been quietly stunned at how well these snake-oil therapeutics have gone down with these capable, well-laundered Athenians of the north. At lunch-time I find out why. The attendees span most sectors of the information economy, from finance to marketing, insurance to telecommunications; and their table-talk is of friends fired and dumped, downsized and out-sourced, replaced by expert computer programs and sleek, young workaholics.
`I know they think something like this'll make me feel valued,' says one lady from a Scottish bank. `But it just reminds me how bloody hard I'm working now.' Twenty-first-century business culture may be urging you to be a Total Human, an uber-suit, so that you can deal with turbo-charged capitalism and its consequences. But if you don't perform, you're next for the chop. This is the truth of modern management: sweeter carrots, bigger sticks.
The grizzled patriarchs in their business schools all concur: management is a very ancient practice. The most successful executive in all history, says American business mandarin Peter Drucker, `was surely that Egyptian who, 4,500 years or more ago, first conceived the pyramid without any precedent, designed it, and built it, and did so in an astonishingly short time. That first pyramid still stands.' Upon the bones of hundreds of thousands of crushed and mangled slaves, admittedly. But let's not remind ourselves too early about the coercion at the heart of all management.
For management, as a class and as a discipline, has never enjoyed better intellectual and political press. In this country, there is no clearer sign of the new political consensus than the deification of managers in recent Labour (and Labour-friendly) rhetoric.
Mandelson and Liddle's The Blair Revolution coos over these company heroes like protective mother hens. Will Hutton, new editor of the Observer and best-selling author of The State We're In, a model for an alternative economic strategy, has argued that a `stakeholder society' needed `stakeholder management' - highly-skilled organisation men and women, drawn from all sectors of society `on the basis of merit'. Blair's own October 1995 interview with Management Today shows a man more at ease with the bosses than any of his workerist predecessors - claiming a number of personal friends `who are either small business people, or people who went into industry'.
Cynics on the Left or Right could score an easy point here. New Labour's acceptance of `management's right to manage' is yet another concession to one of the key tenets of Thatcherism. After all, when Coal Board supremo Ian McGregor - the original hard-nosed manager - went face-to-face with Scargill and the miners in the mid-Eighties, he effectively paved the way for Blair's post-socialists by delivering the fatal blow to trade-union militancy. And from the Marxist bunker might well come the cry that, for the past half-century, Labour's chief concern has always been to `manage' capitalism better than the Right.
Yet this is more than just the latest handshake between political and economic elites. The language of Blairism is soaked with the latest managerial discourse. Is the stakeholder society anything more than the process of `team management' and `workplace empowerment' writ large? Where all are valued and all contribute; where common goals are agreed and striven for; where consideration for personal needs goes hand in hand with the pursuit of the bottom line? Blair's calls for `partnership' and `mutual trust' between business and government seem to be directly inspired by the more idealistic forms of management-speak.
I doubt whether Jack Black and his psychic bell jars will ever get an invite to Walworth Road, yet New Labour's leading voices often sound just as tremulously excited about business culture, or the `dynamic market economy', as does Mr Black on his instruction tapes. The nation under Tony Blair is to be reconceived as a four-year-long, team-based enterprise project. But, of course, wherever there are managers, however bright and toothy, there must be the managed. Do you know which one you are? Or want to be? Or are we all `in management' now?
* * *
Archie Norman, the school-masterish chief executive of Asda, rubs his shirtsleeves ostentatiously. `You don't want any status distinctions. You don't want titles, big offices, all the trappings that go with the hierarchy in so many companies. They get in the way of communication. Everybody has a right to be involved; everybody in the company gets the same, um, type of privileges. Well, as far as we sensibly can ...'
No managers wear their jackets in the offices of Asda's Leeds headquarters: they're not allowed to. Business magazines praise the supermarket chain as the very model of progressive, empowering, `shirtsleeved' management in Britain. This is more than fashionable lip-service. Since Archie Norman's appointment in 1991, when the chain was a billion pounds in debt and ready for bankruptcy, Asda has returned healthily to the black, increasing its number of customers by 30% and sales by 8.4%.
The figures seemed solid enough, and the press hype touchy-feely enough (`this is a company with a heart', runs a typical Norman quote) to provide some genuine insight as to whether business management is truly becoming, as Peter Drucker puts it, one of the `liberal arts' of civilisation.
First, let's explain the rubbish bin that's sitting on the boss's conference table - toy-sized, plastic and golden, spelling out `Archie' in yellow letters. I first saw it this morning at a staff `huddle' in Asda's flagship store in Pudsey - a backroom where everyone, from the butcher to the baker to the lady who sells candlesticks in Domestic Supplies, plans their daily assault on the unwitting shoppers.
Absurdly, for 9am in a suburban supermarket, the atmosphere is like some Rugby League dressing-room at half-time: much whooping, shouting, rough applause. Mike, the store manager - a happy little pear-shape, cropped and ebullient - clip-clops the lid of his Archie Bin.
`Did y'see me all morning with this, picking up squashed tomatoes and leaves? I'm telling yer, this is a Major Focus. How do we become industry-leading? Hygiene! That's how! We're gonna make hygiene a hero in Asda! We're gonna make the Golden Archie Bin an absolute Asda Way. This'll be the cleanest superstore in the world ...'
I sneak a look at Mike's `colleagues' (the one-status job description in Asda-World). They're not exactly quivering with excitement. But they're not sneering either. As the huddle progresses, the weirdest transformation happens: Californian positivity enters the soul of northern retail. There's Ray - scary, Kojak-smooth, on the lookout for potential staff thieves (`I found a Wonderbra back there'), warning that the culprits will be `packed down that bloody road' - who suddenly gets thrown a magnum of champagne for 25 years' service (cue much hooting and clapping).
There's Betty, a spherical gran in big specs and a Hovis voice, who also gets whooped up for her `truly excellent' store-front welcome. There's Simon, the six-and-a-half-footer from the meat counter, who barks out his five-grand sales increase like a blood-stained corporate raider; other confident Leeds lads and lasses back him up, smartly announcing cake-counter productivity and deep-freeze turnover figures.
And just when you thought shelf-stacking and fruit display couldn't get any more bullish, Mike the store manager pops up with a ghetto blaster to deliver the ultimate company homily. `We've had Recovery. We've had Breakout. So if anybody wants to sing this tune - this is what Asda is going to be about for the next three years ...' Out comes the familiar buzz-saw guitar line: underground and far away, John Lennon's permanent spin picks up a little extra speed. "Y'SAY YOU WANNA REVOL-UU-SHAWN, WE-ELLL YOU KNA-AWW, WE ALL WANNA CHANGE THE WORLD ...' Come on, sing up now ...'
It's humbling, in a way, to know the level of organisational fever that goes into ensuring you never get a rancid kiwi fruit from an Asda store. In a society where the consumer is sophisticated and sovereign, and where most markets are mature and over-sold, every retailer fights in the marketplace on the level of service: the smile at the checkout, the assistance in the aisles, the availability of product, the ambience of the store. And in a business employing 70,000 people, you can't command and control every one of them to be nice, helpful, enterprising and tidy.
So Asda's management has attempted to win the hearts of its employees with a scheme called Tell Archie. This involves listening and responding to all suggestions, providing employees with incentives for success (the best product sellers get the company Jag for a month), granting them a large measure of autonomy over their job activities.
`Instead of punishing for not performing,' says deputy head Alan Leighton, `we reward for performing. Most people come to work to shine, they don't come to work to do badly. And if you can bring that out in people then that's the most powerful thing you can do. That's how we compete.'
Compared with Archie Norman's Charterhouse-to-Cambridge diffidence, Leighton is the It's-A-Knockout supersalesman: only a few days ago he stormed on to the stage of a company conference astride a Harley-Davidson. Today, he proudly shows me a ten-foot long inflatable ruler he has given to all his store managers. `The idea being, they should never be more than ten foot away from a customer. Wacky, but it makes the point. We measure morale and attitude in the same way we measure sales.'
So, I reply, Asda is trying to unalienate the workers? `Yes, but I think that's a very negative way of putting it,' says Archie Norman, rather tightly. An even more negative way of putting it would be this: new-wave management tries to engineer the souls of its workers, encouraging them to see initiative and self-direction as part of their personal identities, make them `enterprising' subjects in every sense of the word, linking their expressions of individuality with the aims of the company.
Now, the truest act of individuality might be to walk right out of a corporate culture which asks you to `serve from the heart', to `shine every day', to call your boss-men `colleagues'. But where would you walk out to, in these inconstant times? And if the company is a `family' that's actively embracing you and welcoming you in, dare you risk the cold and unknown beyond?
I think of Mike the store manager's pop-eyed exultation at the new directives from head office, the eager commitment of his clipboard colleagues from Household And Underwear: these are New Workers for the New Britain, undoubtedly. It's a boring job, bringing us consumers our daily stuff, so if someone's gotta do it, why not with a skip and a jump? And why not let higher management encourage the good vibes?
A few days later, free from their corporate perfume cloud, some raw capitalist data bubbles up on my Net-search. Seems that last Christmas, Asda tried to withdraw bonuses from women employees who took maternity leave, a consequence of management's `crackdown on absenteeism'.
And, bewitched by the PR woman's blather about employee share options, I missed the big story: that earlier this year, Archie Norman netted an instant profit of #1.8m after exercising his right to buy 2.4m shares. What was it Orwell wrote about all being equal (Norman: `we're proudly single-status'), but some being more equal than others?
One last nugget: Archie Norman was chair of his Conservative Association at Cambridge, ran for political office in Southwark in the late-Eighties, and is wreathed in rumours of a future shining career in the Tory party. I remember his response to my queries as to the role of the unions - for Asda, the GMB - in this `family' firm. Was there a battle for collective allegiance here? Could the two co-exist - corporate caring-and-sharing and trade-union representation? The reply came instantly, not missing a beat: `I think one is tomorrow, the second is yesterday.'
* * *
Monday morning in Manchester. Inside the concrete chateau of the Jarvis Hotel sit an acre of middling managers under conference lights: a sea of tonsures and hairspray, mutterings of `ordered that truck yesterday' and `if he can't deliver, he's out'.
What was I thinking about when I signed up for this conference on Self-Managed Teams? The English rugby coach has dropped out, due to `work pressures'. My classic Seventies Red Robbo questions will come too late for the guy from the Rover plant at Solihull: he's shifted his session. The chair looks like a bleached Kevin Maxwell, and already his cybernetic vocal drone is bringing me out in hives.
Of course, it all turns out wonderfully. The first speaker used to be the Human Resources Manager at Trebor Bassett, the sweets manufacturers. Each slide that goes up makes me drool involuntarily: Sherbet Dabs, Liquorice All-Sorts, Bon-Bons, Refreshers - everything that made my infant mouth a sugary grave.
And according to this man, the workers who mixed my youthful white fix were `autonomous' and `self-directing' many years before the news broke out of the business schools. I'm exulting in dusty print after dusty print of 1974 red-and-black industrial estates, crimped hair and Birmingham bags, screeds of neo-hippy work slogans (`The Pursuit of Excellence is Compatible with Concern for People'). There's even a Friedrich Engels-type factory owner, a Mr Ian Marks - I had to check that spelling - who pushed his humane vision through, from foundation stone to buzzing greenfield factory.
The Human Resources Manager indulged in one of his frequent long pauses, and then plunged into quiet tragedy. I hadn't noticed the last-minute programme emendation, `Formerly at Trebor Bassett ...' Mr Marks had sold out the operation to Cadbury Schweppes and, reading between the dry coughs, it was obvious that in the eyes of the new board, the HRM was a squashy Seventies man out of time.
He flipped charts, mumbled through mind-maps and then came out with it: `I just don't think they give a monkey's for our system, to be honest.' Even in this midden of mediocrity, there was a stillness, a respect for a manager's fall: `Bloody waste, I believe.' His arms struggled to contain two sets of folders as he left the stage. He was available for consultancy.
But really, who would be a manager? Who would pass through that veil, to the place where you must use living souls as means to an end, as steps in a plan: where you manipulate the autonomy of others to Get Things Done Willingly And Well? Those who move up into management often talk of the immediate estrangement from erstwhile colleagues; the need to put on the armour, or die from a thousand cutting looks and slicing barbs. No wonder the business-books shelves warp and sag with thousands of titles on `being a leader', `leadership secrets', `inspiring your team'.
For where else is the beleaguered manager to go for existential comfort than the fortress of leadership? And perhaps therein lies some nobility in widget-making, whim-satisfying, servile-doing - the need for managers to harness the latent anarchy in any human group to a productive and profitable end. Leading, leading, into the great capitalist unknown.
Except sometimes, the manager, being human, turns out to be no kind of leader at all - or can be one only at enormous cost to themself and others. The smoking wrecks of management come to Valerie Hopkins, director of the Humanitas Counselling Agency, often to her immensely restful consulting room in the West End. Most of them barrel in from the City of London, hunted and haunted. Hopkins has drawn more than a few management fundamentals from their frowning, sweating confessions in her Queen Anne chair.
First, that management can split you in two. Her favourite example of the moment is the City boss, earning a cool £350K a year, who was offered a move to head the desk at another bank. The salary would be an initial drop to £180K; making a success of it, however, promised immensely greater rewards in the long run. He turned it down, but for this reason: he already gave #300K of his salary to the Samaritans each year. And the personal gratification gained from that was far greater than the prospect of becoming another Cedric Brown.
`We find that very many senior people in organisations are becoming born-again Christians,' says Hopkins. `They're splitting their caring selves and putting it into the Church, because their company is so soulless.' Another lesson is that `healthy organisations make for healthy people'. Hopkins resents being brought in as a sticking plaster to repair malfunctioning executives: `I'm a systemic analyst. You have to deal with the whole culture.'
One company asked her to institute a workplace counselling programme to deal with high-stress casualties. `But when they told me they were working their back offices for 13-14 hours a day, six-seven days a week - and that they were about to do a raft of cutbacks - I told them straight: you need to address the basic issues, not lay around a few psychotherapists to deal with family issues, drug problems, finances, etc.' Seems like a sensible response? `I didn't get the job.'
Hopkins is beginning to encounter what she calls the `anorexic organisation' - addicted to the idea of leanness and meanness as both attractive and effective, while actually destroying their companies' health through endless leeching of human resources. Quite casually, she reveals that her husband, Ian, used to be the head of group treasury at Barings, taking the job six months before Nick Leeson pulled the plug. Three days before the bank collapsed, he was removed from the senior management committee - `for making too much fuss about controls and credit risks'.
But Hopkins is adamant that the pathologies of City management culture - `the fear, the need to conform to the culture, the inability to stand up and say something's wrong' - contributed heavily to the bank's destruction. `You had the old Barings of over two centuries alongside the brash new Barings Securities ... And they hated each other - it was like Montague and Capulet. They depended on each other, but couldn't communicate with each other.'
Hopkins is a stakeholder theorist in her heart, but not in her head. `I don't know wheth er the political remit can change where we are as organisations. Will Hutton's book is brilliant - it says all the right things about short-termism and that macho brutality of the City, which are much easier to hear if they come from a man than from a woman ... Yet sometimes I've been in the middle of a culture, faced with all these jungles of denial and fear, and I've thought, `What the hell am I doing this for?' There will always be conflicts between interests - stake, share, whatever - that managers will have to deal with. We can have more caring organisations, but management is never going to be an easy job.'
* * *
A few miles away, ensconced in a corporate eyrie somewhere between the Economist building and the St James's Club, I have an appointment with the archetypal Company Man. The definitive history of this organisational hero is to be found in the 1995 book, Company Man: The Rise And Fall Of Corporate Life, by Anthony Sampson, that veteran anatomist of Britain. The middle-managers who joined Shell, or IBM, or General Electric, or Ford during the Fifties and Sixties had their life-trajectories set in marble: diligence and conformity would raise you up the floors and through ever-more private washrooms to a chrome-and-wood-lined space of calm achievement.
Yet no one hated these `corpocrats' more than the Anglo-American New Right of the Seventies and Eighties: the `entrepreneurial revolution' aimed to sweep away layers of useless placemen in both public and private bureaucracies. Thus emerged the Anxious Classes, the Concerned Middle, groups both Clinton Democrats and Blair Labourites hope to mould into winning electoral blocs over the next 12 months. No one, ran the smoothly polished cliche, was safe from the creative destructions of nanosecond capitalism now.
Except, it would appear, this eminently clubbable chap. Over the past 30 years, Richard Scott (his preferred pseudonym) has worked for two of the biggest companies in the West, the kind of organisations that never bleat about infrastructural investment: they simply are the infrastructure. His last one produced just about every possible product; the current one distributes just about everything that can be distributed.
`I'm a company man, and glad to be,' he pipes in his Carnaby-Street demotic. `Means I can achieve goals, have enough resources, not work too many hours. See the world. Add value.' Adding value is this man's mantra: it's why he does what he does. At the moment, his preferred mode is to be the first man to properly sell a Very Important Soft Drink to a Very Large Post-Communist State. `They don't have any decent fizz - well, nothing that's worth drinking, anyway. We're setting up the plants, doing the marketing. Giving them a good product that won't go off in four days, that always tastes the same, that is reasonably priced. That's adding value.'
He's pure Commerciality, dispensing shop-worn wisdom for a whole afternoon: less regulation on business, management by getting cleverer people to do the hard work, keeping your head down as a career strategy, advancement through results not hype, reward as the only human motivation ... Under the crush of banality, I dimly remember a comment from the academic who originally put me on to Mr Scott: `He has written a novel, you know.'
It's about his student youth in Vietnam, at the end of the war: watching one empire leave and another descend, each one of them as indifferent to the fate of its peoples as the other. At last, his studiedly lazy pulse quickens. `You can't have aesthetic, moral values unless you've got economic values. What I saw in Vietnam then, and when I went back in the Eighties, was appalling. No human dignity left there whatsoever - because no economic activity.'
There's a gleam of conviction in this man's eye: `This will sound extremely pompous ... but wealth creation is something I feel very righteous and justified about. Why shouldn't people have what they desire? Why shouldn't they be comfortable? What does politics have to do with that?'
Suddenly, I realise that this six-figure-salaried, whisky-warmed, rather endearing lounge lizard - who's nevertheless commanding a major commodity colonisation of the post-Soviet world - is the real thing: homo economicus at his most effective. He's a manager because he wants to get things done; and being near the head of this multinational octopus enables him to get very big things done. The busy-ness of the world moves on under hands like these. They add value, of a kind. They manage things.
* * *
The root of `company' is cum panis, literally to break bread together. Looked at kindly, the manager is the orchestrating host at the banquet of human energies that is the modern company or organisation. As Anthony Sampson's history shows, the professional manager emerged only because the great company-owning families decided to relinquish direct control. There are always exceptions: Japanese capital is semi-feudal in its family linkages; and there is something pleasingly matriarchal in Anita Roddick's recent disdain of `all these bloody expensive lawyers and consultants' that foist themselves upon her Body Shop.
Yet before the manager transformed into the rapacious executive, earning 50 or 100 times the salary of his workers; before management-talk became the chosen discourse of almost all public life, perceiving `excellence' and `performance' and `enterprise' in everything from bedside manner to classroom discipline; before all this, there were managers like my father.
John Kane, Area Personnel Manager for British Rail (West of Scotland Division), 1970-1986. I caught him for a morning, in the midst of a busy retirement schedule. What he did in his job, by his own testimony, was to break bread. `Charming! You mean I disappeared for ten hours a day and you never knew what I did?'
Well, as it transpires, Mr Kane didn't really `manage', in the strict business sense. `We had this Rulebook of National Agreements, decided between higher management and the unions. One deviation from that - say you wanted to reward someone, do a little project - and slam! there'd be a walk-out, a major protest. There was a rule for Footplate Staff in there from 1919, going on about horseboxes and such ... Your scope was very limited.' So what did you do? `Well, I did Personnel. I soothed egos. I sorted out personal problems. I made conversations possible.'
Engineer managers with wire wool for brains would rage furiously at indolent fitters; my father would spray gentle verbal rain, and discover the man was sleeping on a friend's couch, evicted from home and hot dinners. Pre-Thatcher, `the railway' was composed of a great divide: between the men who worked the trains and the men who helped them; between the doers and the talkers; between the sparks and the memo-writers. My father was the whitest of white collar, pouring emotional oil into the clashing social gears of state industry.
I now know where some of my more intense pop-culture references come from: Jack Lemmon and Walther Matthau in The Odd Couple, Morecambe and Wise, Dave Allen, the Two Ronnies and, pre-eminently, Phil Silvers as Sgt Bilko - all of them management men to their cufflinks, using irony and wit to register disbelief at the rules which govern them, and at their resignation before them.
I realise that these were training videos for my dad, exercises in practical office survival. He even outlined his `Bilko technique of man-management': get the guy who you've heard doesn't want to do a particular task, and tell him - in an off-hand way, of course - that he's really not suitable to do it. `Nine times out of ten, the chap will eventually say, `Well, why can't I?' Bilko did that every week. My best management training ever.'
I've also discovered where my father's profoundly British identity comes from: his gratitude to the English manager. We've always been aware of a certain ethnic discrimination in our family history: muttered Sunday tales of Catholic ghettos called `Paddy's Land', adverts in early Fifties' evening papers reading `Protestants only need apply'. I'm told that there was even a Railway Supervisor's Masonic Lodge. `I had a terrible time of it in the Fifties, at the start. The only Irish Catholic in an Orange rail depot. You had no chance.'
That is, until the English managers came up to Scotland on a wave of national rationalisation. `They had no idea about this great divide. They didn't know who the hell King Billy or St Patrick was, nor did they care. They were appointed on merit: if you could do the job, you got it. A lot of people won't admit that that situation changed. But it didn't affect them. It affected me.'
Management as the management of a life: steered where it wants to go, round its rocks and stronger than its dead-weights. Now I'm getting close to the root of my fascination with The Manager: he who assumes authority, makes final decisions, gets things done. As the next tape is about to be inserted, John Kane snaps to attention: already moving to the next meeting, which isn't actually there. `That's enough, Patrick. I haven't talked that much in 25 years. Your time's up.'
I watch his back disappear down the garden path, as I watched it disappear for many puzzled, yearning years. The heart has its management strategies, too.