Saturday, August 16, 2008


Back in the days when I was a Finance Director, we used to deal with a then relatively unknown, but very large Far Eastern company which made among other things, motor vehicles. We ended up arranging a big shareholder deal with them in Poland, which was where they ended up having their Headquarters. As part of the seemingly unending negotiations before the contracts were signed, I went over to Poland for a few days to sort out a few final contractual odds and ends. One of the guys who worked for me (let’s call him John) came with me, and we were put up in the Far Eastern company owned "Hotel", which was less like a Hotel and more like a cross between an Open Prison and a rather strictly run 2nd Division British Public School Boarding House.

Come the last evening before we left, the Management there put on a formal dinner for us. So around 7pm, we dutifully trooped down for the meal.

The Far Eastern/Polish composite meal itself seemed to be a means by which the maximum amount of alcoholic spirit could be introduced into the body as quickly as possible. It started with shots of alcohol, which were topped up ceaselessly and relentlessly throughout each course (one of which I remember seemed to be Vodka on a bed of Cold Cabbage - mmmm, Yummy!) including dessert. They came with the coffee, and then, after the meal, they got onto the real purpose of the evening, which was to drink more alcohol. For each top-up, there was an increasingly rambling sort of speech from one of the twenty or so people gathered around the table. Given the need to maintain my svelte like profile, I gave up at the umpteenth round of drinks. I am sure by that time, which was around the dessert, I was already telling everyone around me who would listen, that I really, really loved them, and that I was their friend.

“John” however was made from sterner stuff, and had been training for this day for most of his life. If it was going to be a drinking competition, then he was up for it. He took them on, and it soon turned personal. The host was a Far Eastern gentleman who was Second in Command of the Company there, and was in charge because the Boss Man was away on business, and was expected back later that evening. He and John swopped drinks and speeches until the Host ceremonially upturned his glass onto the table indicating that the English (who was actually Welsh) had won. I suspect that this gave our side an immense number of International Brownie points, and that John, from that time forward, was deified or canonized in the strangely different mind of the Far Eastern Business executive.

The meal finished (from my viewpoint, at least) in a beautiful soft-focus haze, and we moved into a large room sparsely littered with easy chairs, and what looked like a television cabinet in the corner. I expected that what was to follow was a gentle half hour of inter-company male bonding before bed. Oh how naïve can a poor Finance Director be?

When the host ceremoniously opened the doors to the "television" cabinet in the room, what appeared inside was not a TV, but what looked suspiciously like a juke box. Clearly they were going to play us some music – how thoughtful.

Hang on a minute! The host is approaching me with what looks very much like a restaurant menu, and, bloody hell, a microphone. My mind suddenly added all the parts up, and got the total to somewhere near Four. It was going to be a karaoke evening!

It did not take very long to realise that, as the most senior British person there, I was to be accorded the great honour of starting the cabaret off for the 30 or so people who had now gathered to witness what was to follow. He handed me the mike and the "menu", which was now, only too clearly, the list of songs available on the very high tech machine behind me.

I will remember for a very long time the real feeling that what was required NOW from me was either a dead feint or a small localised earthquake just under my feet. But then I thought of John. If he had stuffed them on the drinking front, the Dunkirk spirit, or more likely the Vodka spirit, made me decide to go for the best out of three on the singing front.

Without being immodest, I have a reasonable singing voice - after all, I am half Welsh. I am most definitely not Tone deaf, and I have some awareness of the need for light and shade, phrasing and timing in Pop songs, although the shower head in our bathroom is the only object in my life that has really heard me giving it a real go.

All of which was great until upon opening the book, which had some 30 pages in it. What I saw was all in some Far Eastern script, which looked for all the world like a row of toe-nail clippings. So I'm standing there, turning the pages over with an increasing level of panic, and willing the possibility of the small earthquake to return. On the very last page, and I swear I saw the glint of a smile on the host's face when I turned it over, was a list in ENGLISH.

I looked down the list, and Glory Be, there it was – “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Not only did I like the song, I could hear it in my mind, as well as a lot of other things. So that was it. I roughed up my hair to make it look like an explosion in a mattress factory, and went for it. "Tonight, Mathew, I'm going to be Art Garfunkel”.

To be scrupulously honest, I had probably imbibed an amount of alcohol exactly on the cusp of perfection, and it had been circulating in my body for the absolutely optimum amount of time, to create that Nirvanah-like state of grace where I probably thought I was Art Garfunkel.

Actually, I really quite enjoyed it. They all stood up and clapped/cheered, and I had the inkling of the feeling that many stage performers say they get when the audience's adulation becomes a drug – but only for a second or two.

Onto the next performer, who was Korean, who duly sang, and was duly applauded. After a few rounds of this, it became clear that this was their form of Team Building at work, as everyone who sang, however good, or however unbelievably bad, was treated to an ovation. John had a go, proving quite conclusively that not all Welshmen can sing. Then right at the end, and it must have been the last effects of the evening's drink on me, I decided that he and I would perform a duet. Ye Gods!

Can you imagine, he and I up in front of thirty or so totally bemused foreigners listening to a spherical Welshman with a beard, and a gangly, rather handsome Finance Director performing Sonny and Cher's "I've got you Babe".

I thank my lucky stars that there was no-one in that room who had a camera or video recorder with them – it was un-live-downable. For the record, John was Sonny – well he had to be with the beard, and I was Cher, and we gave it a real go. I am sure John had no idea of what was happening, as the alcohol was most definitely getting/had got the better of him, but this sticks clearly in my mind as the absolute zenith of my international singing career.

Then, having finally passed the microphone round everyone in the room, everything subsided and you wondered – What next?

The answer was not long coming. The background music started up, but the mike had disappeared. This time, the host walked, rather too purposefully for my liking, towards me. If I didn't know any better, I would have said he was going to ask me to dance. Bloody Hell, he was! He indicated that he and I would take to the floor. I couldn’t believe it.

What do you do? – this is the male equivalent of lying back and thinking of England? Thank God for the drink. He held his arms out, and I gave in. In for a penny……

I do remember thinking – Who's going to lead and take the man's role in this bizarre pairing? I only knew how to do the male bit, and if his thoughts were the same, then immediately the thing started, the first parts of our anatomy which would touch, with some force, would be something which was well hidden in my trousers - the only problem was that his wasn't.

You know the way sometimes, you have to decide where the line in the sand is. I decided if there was the most minimal iota of contact in the naughty part region, even the slightest, tenderest brush, I'm going for my Pocket Leatherman knife, and it will be “Bobbit-Time”, International Team Building notwithstanding.

But they all got up and joined in, looking for all the world like a Series 2 version of Strictly Come Dancing (slightly inappropriate title in this case!), so my acute embarrassment was hidden among thirty blokes waltzing rather drunkenly around the room.

Time for Bed, said Zebedee, and I admit to a slight lack of recall at the process of disengagement. The things we do in the interests of International Commerce.

What I really would have liked would have been to see my then Boss there as Guest of Honour, and his having to face the possibility of singing and dancing for his supper. He would have absolutely hated it. Sometimes, when I’m feeling a bit pissed off – all I have to do is bring that thought to the front of my mind, and I’m smiling again.


Whitenoise said...

Yikes... I can only imagine how awkward this event must have been. I think I might have made an excuse about needing a bathroom, then promptly disappeared while formulating stories of food poisoning...

Anonymous said...

How well I remember a very similar experience, courtesy of the same hosts.