Remembering John.

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.

25 thoughts on “Remembering John.

  1. A brilliant story after my heart. Warm, philosophical and compassionate. I can well see John signing the documents.In the early days we had similar experiences with a bank manager who would just ask us while passing on the road in our suburb of Balmain if we needed anymore money for our renovation of old houses venture. Come and pop in and see me, he would say.

    • They don’t make them like that any more, Gerard. The real characters have gone. Flawed for sure but community-minded people.

  2. Andrew, this is good. I think you have found your niche as a writer. I really enjoy reading what ever you write but I really liked this one. Great descriptions of the character makes an excellent story. .

  3. Another great read Andrew, you certainly have a natural talent in writing. I can picture John, sitting in his regular spot in the pub. Brings back memories of some of my mentors. Funny how that generation and alcohol were so prevalent. I was once in an explosion at our laboratory, most of my hair burned or melted. My “boss”, an Irishman from Cork simply reached in his pocket, pulled out a 20, and told me to get a haircut, a whiskey to settle my nerves, and to get back within the hour. Best boss I ever had, there was nothing a bottle of Paddy and some brain storming couldn’t solve.

    • It sounds amusing now Barry but I suspect it wasn’t at the time. Of course these days you wouldn’t get all that for a 20.
      The Irish have a gift for humour.

      Also I have a friend who is ethnically Indian but brought up in Ireland – Cork in fact! You should see the looks when a guy called Sundeep speaks in a broad Irish accent at a speed I can barely comprehend. We need characters to brighten our lives.

  4. With the exception of F2S, everyone seems to be critical of John, and unlike Gerard, it didn’t read compassionate to me. More sort of objective, analytical, and an undercurrent of judgemental. But there we go. On another blog, a friend has written about observation. We all observe and interpret differently. So that’s mine. Well, one of them.

    I started reading the post with a sense of nostalgia. Yet, when I got to the end, the atmosphere had changed. A sense of disapproval with hindsight, or even disapproval back then, not wanting to be him. My parents drank plenty at home, and in the pub, but at work for ten/eleven hour days, they didn’t touch a drop. Drink and work didn’t mix.

    In the civil service we had a bar. Come lunchtime, one of our senior officers would round us all up and he would always have two of that ghastly Glen something. Morangie maybe. I probably had a coke or a glass of wine if I was feeling reckless. Mostly I avoided going and went swimming instead. Lunchtimes were flexible – if you wanted to meet someone the other side of London, you went back when you were ready. With the delays on Central you couldn’t get anywhere and back in less than an hour, let alone have lunch.

    Everyone’s flawed. I would rather have flawed brilliance than squeaky mediocrity. The question is, are the times better today? Are people any more use? Does more work get done to a higher standard? I don’t see it. I see incredible incompetence in a lot of cases.

    We needed a loan and our build soc provided one. Peanuts. Ten grand. I was earning whatever, certainly enough to cover it, we paid our mortgage regularly and the manager approved it straightaway. He got moved and chastised for approving it. We paid it off early. He had made a correct decision that didn’t fit the parameters. And that was 90s, let alone today.

    We’re all a product of our time, me included.

    You must have learned something from John.

    • I did not set out with any preconceived notion of how to present John. I wrote it as I remembered it. It is all true and the names have not been changed. If he comes across as a sympathetic character, a loveable rogue, so be it. If he comes across a flawed danger to society, so be it. I learned both positives and negatives from John. Things to emulate, things consciously to avoid. I am sure I have many other flaws. Behaviour is in the eye of the beholder might be an appropriate tag. In terms of decision making on loans the thing that was hammered into us at the outset was the character of the individual. There was a mnemonic – CAMPARI – which was supposed to capture the canons of lending. The C stood for character. Top of the list. So I too would probably have approved your mortgage.

      • That’s a fair reply/comment. I guess I fall on the side of loveable rogue. It’s a bit like Alan Clark, or Cecil Parkinson. Do you judge them as a politician because they are sexually unfaithful to their wife? Do you judge the person who had the working lunch? Or do you judge them on what they got out of their staff, which is the interesting one. Did John actually get results out of people? I don’t agree with drink driving at all. I thought I would add that, but in pre-brethalyser days people did it. They still do it now, both in Spain and Gib. I don’t know how many people we are aware of that have been banned, but I could be running out of bank manager’s fingers to count on.

        The mortgage was easy. This was a personal loan. And if you would have approved it, you too would have had your knuckles rapped and sent to South Tyneside or some other local equivalent of Siberia.

        The last time we filled in a mortgage app was a nightmare. Twenty million sheets of paper. Or twenty at the least. Just why? And a ferocious argument with the idiot woman saying no we did NOT need to sign away our rights to carpet bagging with the building soc (different one here) because we already had accounts with them. That’s what I mean about incompetence. And then there was the incident where some crap company kept taking premiums for a mortgage that had been paid off (I had two houses, hence two mortgages). How long did that take for me to sort out and get a refund? Far too long. I’d like to think in John’s day these things wouldn’t have happened. Or perhaps I am being naive with my rose tinted specs.

  5. Ah those were the days, and were there all the rip offs and scams we have today? I don’t think so.
    My word is my bond, utmost good faith and buyer beware.
    I am sure you can provide the latin and also align each one to the business they represented

  6. I’d have John as my bank manager any day of the week rather than the mean and loathesome, scarily sober Miss Trunchbull who currently stands guard at the portals of London Bridge branch of HSBC. That branch should really have a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the rottweiler’.

    I know for a fact that there are many John type figures still working in the City but mostly under the guise of solicitors and barristers. Media and advertising tend to have more of a lunchtime coke habit. When I was at Art school, all the best tutors were John figures too – they worked hard and they played hard, and when they partied, they really partied but it didn’t stop them being great teachers and educators. They knew their craft and like your John, a liquid lunch didn’t dampen their brilliance. It is indeed all down to character, flawed or not.

    • There is nothing wrong with a lunchtime coke, Lottie. Have you not read about Gerard’s friend who drank Fanta? Also through a straw I suspect and not to be sniffed at.

      I rather like the sound of Miss Pitbull. As an HSBC shareholder I think we need the odd oddball. Sobriety is a peculiar trait if embarked upon voluntarily. MIss P sounds as if she may be a dominatrix in her spare time. Do you have her number by any chance? PMP.

      • Miss Trunchbulls thighs will make mincemeat of you Andrew. I’ve got her number if you are still interested. And yes, I did read Gerard’s story about the Otto and the Fanta faux-pas – I have no problem with lunchtime cokes either 😉

  7. John was a pretty interesting character and I think you’ve done him fair justice, Andrew. Fair and balanced one might say.
    It is easy to judge harshly in hindsight. Many things that were accepted in times past, regrettable though they may be, are easily condemned in modern times. We as a species are constantly evolving albeit some resisting kicking, screaming and car bombing in protest….or ignorance.
    I grew up hearing people of various nationalities referred to in terms not complimentary although not the hateful words that immediately come to mind. It was odd as I was being taught to accept all people while hearing these words at the same time. For the most part my relatives were good people that just went with the times. John’s drinking seems in that category of those times. An anachronism today but typical of years past.
    This is a very good post, Andrew. It gives pause for thought and self-evaluation in our outlook towards others.

  8. Liquid Lunches, reminds me of an old boss of mine, Andrew, who’d roll in late afternoon and yet still held down his job, as no-one would say a thing. (I was a lowly munchkin so I just looked on in amazement and filed things away!!) He was love-able though, not a bully, but a very troubled man methinks, looking back now with hindsight. Enjoyed your reminiscence very much, you have a raconteur style about you, makes one want to just sit and read (I can’t say listen ‘cos that’s impossible innit!!) 😉 xPenx

    • “Lowly munchkin” – what a lovely expression, Pen. In Chinese they describe themselves as a “small potato”. I never know whether boiled, roasted or mashed.

  9. Gives a whole new meaning to Bankers Draft.
    I can see a chain of pubs The English Bankers Draft or perhaps- line of draft beers including the special Overdraft,
    I had been thinking of sharing exploits from my first jobs in London in 1960s. But wondered if they portrayed too poor an image. Courage lad, have a draft and go for it. Be warned.
    Enjoyed hearing about John.

  10. What a great story! What a jerky guy to work for, too! Yikes. Aren’t you glad we don’t have to start over! 🙂 By the way, I have an award for you on my site. Please accept it as a token of my appreciation for being my blogging friend. 🙂 Marsha ☺

  11. I remember hearing a discussion on the radio about 1970s British politicians, and it was mentioned that (Prime Minister) Harold Wilson had made some snide comments -after George Brown’s death – about Brown’s drinking habits. This prompted the retort that:
    “George Brown drunk was a better man than Harold Wilson sober !”

    • I vaguely recall George Brown being drunk on a BBC programme – and people being all “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” over it. Good man, George.

      • And the inspiration for Private Eye’s much-used euphemism “tired and emotional”….a phrase originally used by a Labour spokesman when GB was accused of being under the influence..

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