Thirty years ago I worked in an office that had as its chief manager a short, wiry, very bright man, whose name was John. He was probably about sixty years old.
At that time it is probably fair to say that banking was a less complicated business. People worked hard and played hard. The bank manager was then still respected in the community. John was probably biased more towards play hard than work hard. He relied on his intellect to carry him through.
Lunch was invariably taken at the local watering hole. This is a quaint English euphemism for a drinking establishment. Alcoholic drink. The English pub’. I was quite naive in my first year. A customer came in and asked for a Banker’s Draft. No problem except that it required two managerial signatures. There were no managers in the branch at the time. A more experienced colleague suggested I go to the pub’. I can’t I protested, I need to get this draft signed. A deep sigh followed. All the managers were in the pub’. I wasn’t being told to go for a drink. And so it was that I traipsed off to the Robin Hood to collect two authorised signatures.
John typically had a long lunch. Indeed on one occasion I remember a panic-stricken secretary taking a call from his wife at 5pm. She wanted to know what time John was coming home as they were going out to dinner. The problem was that John wasn’t back from lunch yet. We had no idea where he was. He eventually rolled in about 6pm and, believe it or not, drove home. The idea of driving after so much alcohol was bad enough in those days but today I am sure someone would confiscate his car keys and put him in a taxi to face the music at home.
Normally however he would get back mid-afternoon or maybe go to the golf course. If he was in the office there was always the 5pm ritual. His assistant (clerk we called them in those days) would go down to his office with a large folder full of letters to sign, correspondence to read and credit applications to approve or recommend. I was not his clerk but when Tony was on holiday I covered for him.
The first time I did so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I put the folder in front of him and he grunted. He reached behind him, opened a cabinet, took out a bottle of Scotch and two glasses. He poured two generous measures and started turning the pages. The more he had drunk the sharper he was. He had a phenomenal eye for detail. He asked very astute questions. Sometimes he would look disinterested and simply ask “Is this ok?”. If we said yes then he simply signed. If he wasn’t happy he let you know. And you didn’t leave until he had put the bottle away.
On one occasion he came back from a lengthy meeting with a prominent local firm. He called Tony down and simply said “Put together an application to Region for a GBP500k loan”. “Fine”, said Tony, “what is it for?” At this point John coughed, reached into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette packet that he had opened up and on the inside were scrawled a few notes. He threw it across the desk and that was it.
I doubt very much whether John would survive for long in the industry today. He was brilliant but flawed. A benevolent bully. Undoubtedly an alcoholic. A caricature from an era when many things were accepted that today would never be tolerated. I learned a lot from John. I vividly recall chatting to Tony one day and promising myself that come hell or high water I would never turn into John. I hope I didn’t. Working for him was a rite of passage. I have no idea what happened to him. I guess he has passed on and gone to that great public house in the sky. And I am sure he still signs the odd draft in between pints. I just hope nobody allows him to drive.