There's something special about a first job. The excitement of that first interview, expressing those inner hopes with youthful naiveté, and then winning the race against all other runners.
I was one of those lucky ones who had had little doubt about my intended direction in life. The smelly and messy chemistry lab had always held my attention at school, and I was hell-bent on going into laboratory work full-time. At the tender age of sixteen, measuring a toe to top five feet three-and-a-half, I entered working life, earning the princely sum of £32-10-00 per month. What's more, I was doing what I had always dreamed of - analysing things, in this case, oil, and all its derivatives!
As a junior lab assistant, I did not have self confidence as my strong suit. A clumsy youth, I struggled to master all that intricate glassware and careful measurement, and at times was surprised that the Company kept on paying someone with such a lack of skill.
My new boss, Ben Howell, had chosen me probably because of an old school tie connection. I found a natural bond with him and he constantly encouraged me. My first task was the execution of a "quick test", an analysis which estimated water content. This test was carried out in duplicate and one's accuracy was measured by the closeness of the two results. During my first few months I was constantly getting answers that diverged widely and I would then have to repeat the test, losing the factory valuable time. My schoolboy experience suggested that this kind of performance deserved a kick up the butt, but instead of an admonishment, my patient boss would invariably administer a small piece of constructive advice, usually leading to my getting a better result the next time.
Ben was a man who seemed set to spiral into the managerial stratosphere very quickly. The laboratory ran smoothly, and any problem that came up was quickly and cleverly resolved. The man was a born leader, on top of his job and clearly enjoying every working moment. He could handle any situation, had a thought on every possible subject, and was eloquent beyond my comprehension ; in company terms, a magnificent man to have in your corner.
I became fascinated by his ability to field any question, whether technical, political or something to do with everyday life. He would quickly make a judgement, then expound at length as though this new subject was his total speciality.
One of my fellow white-suited analysts was a keen Austin Healy fan and often regaled us with the goings-on at the Healy Club, or some very intricate point about the car's design or performance. But when Ben was about, the boss took centre stage. "Sportscars," eulogised Ben " what a dream my MG TC was. Your Healy isn't even in the MG's class - it doesn't have wire wheels. They were hell to keep clean, but the time spent was worth every minute. Mind you carburetion could be a problem.." My colleague seldom got a word in.
Our chemicals storeman was an avid follower of Tromp van Diggelen's body-building techniques (very different from most because there was no use of barbells, weights and the like). This chap loved debating the subject with our leader and every time he brought us a new sample of raw material, he'd seek to chat about his favourite topic. Unfazed by his own lack of stature, Ben would sound off as though he and not the storeman had done all the research: "You cant get strong by just using the mind. Old Tromp was always twisting imaginary ropes and tearing apart imaginary telephone directories. Who could be surprised that he went on to win the world's imaginary body-building title!"
Within nine months of my first clapping eyes on this genius, Ben was transferred to head office. None of us was surprised to hear that within the following two years, he had been promoted to senior management, now controlling the Company's newly created Product Development unit. We could just imagine him addressing the board, making convincing presentations on the virtues of miracle ingredient WD-9 in a yet to be named shoe polish or textile.
He didn't forget his old friends, and on his odd visits to our satellite factory he would pop in for a chat. The first of these was about a year after his departure and the sight of me caused his face to dissolve into a cross between a frown and a laugh. "Who is this tramp?" he asked, amazed. What he saw was a youth who had grown 16 centimetres in fewer months and yet was trying still to fit into a suit designed for a child; to make things worse, acid holes in my sleeves and rear had not improved the ability of what used to be a white suit, to cover my body.
But apart from the fun of our meeting again, we found Ben a lot more serious. Whilst he still betrayed that ubiquitous manner, he had lost the wild authority, the ability to dominate a conversation. Before, he'd been keen to deliver a laughing kick at any one else proffering an opinion; now he seemed to hang back just a little before committing. His newly found circumspection seemed to suit conversation a lot better and we were all able to make an input.
He was still exciting to listen to, and talked of the discovery of magnificent new chemicals which would transform drudgery in the years to come. "The war" he said "produced many a disaster, but it also sped up discovery and invention. If it hadn't happened, we still wouldn't have plastic and all the convenience that flows from it."
We decided that he must still be the same guy - the decorum we sensed must be part of Ben's ascent in the world, and a necessary evil accompanying his growing responsibility. We sensed (perhaps hopefully) that he could still stand and deliver on any old subject, given circumstances more relaxed than those at work.
In the succeeding years I battled on with my University studies and at last qualified. The piece of scrolled paper I was handed at graduation became my key to the Company's management door, and it wasn't long before my statistic was laid before the head office personnel department. In their wisdom, they decided that a spell at HO would be good for my career.
Of course my mentor's tales had impressed me deeply and I had long since decided that new products should be my chosen direction. I requested a transfer to the New Product Development Department and Ben was very happy to employ me. Within weeks I had trained a successor in the laboratory, packed my bags, climbed aboard a Viscount, and arrived in my new home city.
Ben and I met at about noon. I had suggested that we go out for lunch and he readily agreed, choosing his "local" as the venue, a pub at which Ben got easy and frequent service in the hour we had available. I quizzed him on what position I was to take up and he was vague. "We have eight sub-groups. I think you could do something in the rubber section" was all he could give. "What in particular?" I pressed. "We'll have to see" he replied showing obvious discomfort at being pressured.
I found all this amazing and not a little disconcerting - was this the same man I had known six years earlier? This former picture of authority, this encyclopaedic brain, had become an empty shell. Gone was the ability to engage in conversations many and varied. Instead, I observed a shifty distant relative of the man I had idolised. He was indecisive on any subject we discussed.
Back at the office, without asking too many leading questions, I put out some feelers - had the people in my new environment also observed a change? No second invitation was needed. I learned that Ben had slowly retired more and more from any Company activity outside his own department. Even there, his earlier ability to inspire new thoughts had largely evaporated because he had stopped reading scientific journals - his photographic brain's passport to unlocking ideas. Now, the staff just got on with things as best they were able, and Ben's second in command spent most of his time fronting for his superior. The boss had become a virtual recluse who now slipped out to the pub at the slightest opportunity, then sucked away at peppermints all afternoon. Respect for Ben's ability had all but dried up.
What had gone wrong?. How could a man with such promise burn out at the sprightly age of 38? To answer these questions I needed to imagine the turmoil of a man who gets in too deep, often making promises he cannot keep. Perhaps the loud and confident talk had served him well early on, gaining his staff more time to bring new products to scientific fruition. But then, maybe things kept happening too slowly and mere rhetoric wasn't enough to keep the sword suspended. Eventually, the term "excuse management" must have been on the lips of many of Ben's colleagues.
My disappointment was bitter - something in his personality must have cracked to have forced such a stark change. And crack went the mirror image, my view of a wonderful role model.
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