Monday, September 15, 2008


Sometimes people say some really clever things. And because of who they are, you know it’s because they mean to. Like Oscar Wilde, Peter Cook, or Brian Clough. Most of us however, don’t necessarily get the benefit of the doubt. A brilliant witticism from most of us gets the listener wondering if we really knew what we were saying, and I came across an example of this in an excellent book ("Queuing for Beginners" by Joe Moran) I devoured yesterday.

In Britain in the Nineties, there was still a continuing fight by the Unions against Rail Privatisation and also the various Management shenanigans being played out in the London Underground. In LU’s eyes, they had Jimmy Knapp as the arch Union Villain trying to take us back to the Industrial Dark Ages. Around Christmas 1996, London Underground’s maintenance workers (and I am typing this with a straight face) demanded their rights to a cappuccino break. If he’d been alive, Fred Kite might well have turned in his grave.

Previous to this the union had relinquished two twenty minute tea-breaks taken every day by their members in return for the provision of a free drinks vending machine. Later, when they wanted to save some money, LU apparently went on a cost cutting initiative, and removed the most expensive items on offer in the machine – to whit the Hot Chocolate and the Cappuccino.

The Union duly threatened a strike, and the Management duly backed down. After the furore had died down, Knapp, who was the Rail Union’s General Secretary, declared, apparently without a hint of a smile, that “Cappuccino might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but a deal’s a deal.”

I like that.

I’m reminded of a time when I worked in the Austin Morris Car Plant in Birmingham in the mid Seventies. This was then riven by Union activism, and most of the Shop Floor Management energy was spent sorting out union issues rather than building cars. I was then in charge of the Site’s Accounting systems, running the payroll and making sure the financial numbers added up. It was, to be honest, a job I endured rather than enjoyed, but it put a few building blocks in the CV for later, more exciting times.

Looking after the myriad of suppliers we dealt with, I had to control and negotiate some of the larger contracts with these people. Some were One Man bands, some were Multinationals, and others sat in the middle. One such was the mob who ran the Effluent Removal for the site. Without going into too much detail, this was a necessary and vital part of the operation, and used a fleet of lorries which the boss-man of the company had euphemistically called “Sludge Gulpers”, to remove all the detritus produced daily by the site’s 27,000 employees. These contracts were let on an annual basis, and the day came when it was my first time to go through this particular one.

If you didn’t know what the guy did for a living before you met him, it only took a few minutes for your nostrils to start feeding you a few clues. Being British, we never mentioned it, although it is fair to say that having the meeting in an Open Plan part of the office was a bit of unforeseen luck on my part.

There was always a row and a disagrement in these sort of discussions, of the “You can afford it”, “No, I can’t.” “You Can”, “I Can’t.” style - the really sophisticated Closing the Deal chess-playing stuff of Middle Seventies Britain. However, having finally shaken hands on the deal, his parting comment to me when he was bemoaning that he’d lost out big time in the agreement was, “Well, mate, it might be Shit to you, but it’s my Bread and Butter.”

1 comment:

Whitenoise said...

Not quite the same thing, but reminiscent of some of Yogi Berra's great lines.