I don’t normally do auto-biography; I prefer to deal with the issues in my life through writing fiction. In my view, auto-biography must be fiction even when the author is being as honest as they know how. Writing turns the chaos we live through into a narrative that may be true but is necessarily still only one version of the truth.
Perhaps one version is enough.
Anyway, the reason I’m committing auto-biography here is that the past week has been a snapshot of what my working life is like. I’d like to capture it while it’s fresh in my mind, in the hope that the narrative that emerges will help me decide if this is the sort of life I should be living.
The blog will return to fiction and reviewing fiction after this, so if auto-biography is not your thing, please skip this post and come back next time.
I hate losing part of Sunday to work. The problem is that you never lose just part of it. From the moment you wake up, work is sitting there looking at you like a dog waiting for you to take him for a walk: ignoring him takes effort and the longer you try the harder it gets.
Tonight I’m flying to South Africa to be part of a team making the final presentation to a client. All the flights to South Africa are overnight ones. In my case, I’m flying from Geneva to Johannesburg via Paris. It seems weird to fly north to go south but there are no direct flights from here. The flights will take twelve hours or so. I’m flying with Air France. I’m traveling business class so I’ll be a comfortable as possible under the circumstances but I’ll still spend more than a day in steel tube that is never quiet, never still and never has enough moisture in the air to stop you dehydrating.
The trip to Paris is smooth enough. Geneva Airport is partly in France, so this is a domestic trip with the national carrier. The only mistake that I make is finishing off “Mockingjay”, the third and final volume in “The Hunger Games” series. I brought it because I couldn’t bear to wait until I got home to finish it. It is even sadder than the first two books, so I arrive in Paris with tears in my eyes. Still, as it is Paris, no one pays me any attention. No one cares what’s happening to me as long as it isn’t happening to them.
I actually like Charles De Gaulle airport: the cigar-shaped terminal buildings, spun out of glass and concrete, shape light in interesting ways. It seems to me the terminals are designed to present travelling as dramatic and stylish. It is the kind of airport Jules Verne might have designed.
The flight to Johannesburg leaves at 23.30 but to get everyone aboard the huge A380, we have to start boarding nearly an hour before that.
I’m in the upper deck. I used to love the upper deck in the old 747s because you walked upstairs once you got into the plane and the shape of the deck told you that you were in the bulbous forehead of the plane. For some reason, I found this ability to locate myself quite pleasing. Getting on the A380 has all the drama of boarding a bus. I don’t have to walk upstairs because the upper deck has its own entrance. The deck itself looks just like any other plane. Where the 747 said “Look! I have a second deck, isn’t that amazing?” the A380 says “We’ve taken two planes and glued them together so we can carry more people, but don’t worry, you won’t notice a thing.”
If it was possible, I’d like to experience a flight as if I were luggage, like those crews in science fiction spaceships who enter suspended animation as their ship propels them light years through space. Until that facility is available on Business Class, I settle for losing myself in the entertainment system until I’m tired enough to try to sleep on the alleged “bed-seat”. I watch “Mission Impossible: The Ghost Protocol” which is almost enough to put me to sleep by itself but my attention is revived by “Cowboys and Aliens” which has a cheeky premise that avoids sliding into parody by the sheer strength of will of the actors and by the high production standards. I then toss and turn and pretend to sleep for the next six hours.
I arrive at Johannesburg airport a little before eleven in the morning and join the crowd of sleepy passengers being herded through the cattle pens towards passport control. Am I the only one who is resisting the urge to “Mooo” as we twist and turn, ever so slowly, towards freedom?
I’m surprised to find that I have to stand still while a mix of facial recognition software and a fever detector scans me. This is higher-tech than I expected. I’ve never been to South Africa before. My sole knowledge of it comes from the CIA World Fact book entry. In my short visit here I will constantly be surprised at how much it is like being in LA or the outskirts of Barcelona.
My driver and a colleague, who has also just arrived from Europe, meet me in the terminal. We drive to the Hilton, shower, shave, change and head in to the client. The two of us are the senior (old) guys who are here to present the end of an assignment to the client and hopefully position ourselves to win the next phase.
We spend the next four hours in a conference room with the team who’ve been here for the past couple of months, going over the final presentation, again and again, challenging it, pulling it apart, putting it back together. This process can be a bit brutal but it means that, by the time we get to the client in the morning we’ll be confident that we haven’t missed anything.
We meet with the project sponsor for a couple of hours, checking that we understand what they want from the next day. It’s my first face to face meeting with the client so I spend time building rapport, making them comfortable, helping them to feel that we’re on the same side.
The messages in the meeting mean that we have to redo the presentation. We head back to the hotel and have dinner before we do more work. Everyone in the hotel seems to know our team. I wonder how many times they’ve eaten here over the past two months. The staff are friendly, informal and efficient and the food is better than I normally get at a Hilton. At 21.00 we meet in the Executive Lounge and re-plan the presentation. I take my leave at 22.30 and head off to write my slides. Except I have no intention of writing anything until the morning. I’m too tired to be creative. So I phone my wife and try to reconnect by phone. Except I can sense that my words are much slower than I think they are and my sentences may lack a certain crispness. My wife, who knows that I’m bad at knowing when I should be asleep, tells me to go to bed and call her when I’m awake.
By 06.45, I’ve written my slides, showered, shaved, dressed, packed and checked out of the hotel. I don’t do breakfast on what I think of as my adrenalin days, so I have some more time to play with my slides before I meet up with the team and we head for the client in a rental car.
We have a couple of hours to prepare but I know I don’t need them. The team has done a great job. The work is high quality and on target. The room has that pre-sucess feel. All I have to do now is make the meeting go well. We check the presentation again, the same way I imagine troops check their weapons, knowing they are already set, but needing to feel them under their hands all the same.
At 10.00 we meet with the client. A room full of bright, focused people. I’m impressed by what they know and how well they work together. This could be any senior team in any of my more entrepreneurial clients. The racial mix is an even split of Black, Asian and Afrikaans but I’m sure I’m more aware of this than the people around the room.
This is the part of the job I like the most, performing in front of the client. I know our content is good and that they will benefit from using it. I also know that some of it is complex and some of it is politically unacceptable and none of it will be easy to implement.
My job is to make sure everybody gets it. That they trust the content, us, and their own ability to do this.
I have no plan, no script but I am completely certain that the words will come to me and they do.
Out team lead does an excellent job of presenting the work, leaving me to humanize it, make it real, make it important and exciting.
How do I do this? It seems to me that the closest analogy is improv acting. I focus on the clients in the room, trying to understand what worries them, what excites them, what they don’t yet understand, and I feed them the work that the team has done and help them see it.
Four hours later we are done. The client is happy. We are happy. To me, the four hours seem to have passed in no time at all. I still haven’t eaten or drunk anything. I’m living off my nerves and I know that, at some level, I’m not quite in touch with the same reality as the people around me. I need to eat. I need a space to come down. Then I will need to sleep.
It is nearly three in the afternoon when we go for lunch. We drive to a shopping mall that looks like it could have been in Switzerland and walk through it to Nelson Mandela Square, a piazza with restaurants, that could be in any Western capital city. We choose an Italian restaurant and sit down to eat together.
It seems to me that shared meals are one of the most important social events in a consultancy. This where we get to know one another, to share war-stories, to kick around ideas on everything from politics (how did the French get left with a choice between the idiot Sarkozy and the odious Le Penn?) through pop-culture (Who are you listening to? What have you read? Which TV series have you bought?) through cult technology (seriously, “The New iPad” is the best name Apple can come up with? What will they call this one when the next one comes out?) to what it’s like to be in South Africa (nice people, great potential, too many guns, too many tribal splits, too much aids, but still a vibrant place that is nice to be on assignment in).
After a couple of hours we have helped each other decompress. I’m now running out of time. I had hoped to stay in South Africa for another day, but it turns out that tomorrow is the only chance I have to meet a client I am trying to win business with, so I have to leave to go to The Netherlands.
A colleague leads me to the train station. My fifteen minute ride to the airport is a close as I get to seeing anything of the city. The last time I saw this racial mix of passengers was when I caught the DLR to London City Airport. The only difference here is that there are young, friendly, but presumably necessary security guards in every carriage.
It’s time for my Clarke Kent act. I slip into the first toilet I can find, step out the business suit and double-cuffed, Windsor-collared, made to measure shirt that I think of as my dress uniform and put on black jeans, a t-shirt and a well-worn black fleece jacket.
An hour later, I’m back in the steel tube of the A380. This time I watch “Puss in Boots” which is a waste of good animation skills and “Hugo Cabret” which is beautiful and dramatic but lacks emotional impact.
This time I really do fall asleep.
We should have arrived in Paris at 06.00. We are a little more than twenty minutes late. This means I have to move very quickly through Charles De Gaulle to make my 07.40 flight to Amsterdam. I ask the guy at the gate if my luggage also made it. One of the disadvantages of the A380 is that it takes forever to get the luggage off. The guy at the gate tells me that he is certain that everything will be al lright. I know at that point that I’m doomed.
I’m twitchy on the flight to Amsterdam. I’m kicking myself for not having put a spare shirt in my laptop bag. How hard would that have been to do? I divert my anger at myself to KLM, wondering what the point was in going through security in Paris if the first thing that they do when we take off is hand me a metal knife and fork?
I make myself wait by the luggage belt until it is dismally obvious that my luggage didn’t make it. I head to the lost luggage office where a young woman, who seems more focused on getting rid of me than helping me, tells me that she has no record of my luggage being missing but that, if I think it has gone astray, all I have to do is go onto the KLM website and tell them all about it. She tells me that she’s sure everything will be fine.
It’s at this point that the pressures of the past days catch up with me. I have to be at the client, who is a two hour drive away, in just over three hours and I’m wearing a T-shirt and jeans I just slept in and more than a day’s growth of beard. I want to stop. I want to go home. I want to have a different job. I phone my wife. She listens. I feel better. I decide that, after all this effort, I have to go to the client and win the business.
I find a suit shop in the airport and tell the guy there that I need a suit, a shirt and a tie. He looks at me and says, “I’m afraid, sir, that everything we have is slim fit.” We both know that that slim fit and I are incompatible.
I’m out of time. I go to get my rental car. It takes a while. All the portable satnavs are out of commission for some technical reason that I suspect is largely made up. Once I show them my “treat this man like God,” loyalty card, a car with an onboard satnav is made available. I end up driving across the Netherlands in the rain in a two-seat Volvo convertible sports car with an automatic gearbox that I find noisy, slow and fuel hungry. I now have less than two hours to make the two hour drive.
Somewhere on the way, I find a place to buy a cheap disposable razor and scrap off most of my beard with only superficial loss of blood.
I arrive just in time to meet with the new global management lead that I’ve flown here to see. We’ve never met face to face before. This is a rich company. The staff are all well groomed: booted and suited to international standards for executives. I stick out like a sore thumb.
All the prep work for meeting with this client has already been done. They already have the presentation. Today is not about content, it’s about trust. Do they trust us to be their new partner in doing all kinds of things that will have a direct impact on their success?
I take a deep breath, offer up a silent thanks to my drama teacher and switch to performance mode. I get a sympathetic response to my baggage drama that helps me to build rapport. I focus all my attention on the client, not even looking at the presentation that I already know by heart, and start building links between what we offer and what they want while demonstrating how much fun I’d be to work with.
The meeting gets extended by an hour beyond the scheduled time. My first ever pitch in t-shirt and jeans has ended in us moving to the next stage in the bidding process. I leave the building happy and start the drive back to Amsterdam.
About halfway back, my body finally manages to push through the chatter in my mind and point out that I haven’t eaten in more than eight hours and that I’m so tired I can’t remember the last ten kilometres of the drive.
I pull over at the next service station. Food can wait. Sleep can’t. I recline my seat, set my alarm for thirty minutes time and instantly fall asleep.
It’s amazing the difference a nap makes. I call some of my consultants to check up on various things and to check that I’m really awake, then I complete the drive to Amsterdam.
On impulse, I drive back to the airport rather than the hotel. I dump the car and find my way back to the same KLM luggage desk I was at a life time ago this morning. This time an older woman is on duty. She seems to think her job is to help me, so she makes a call, locates my luggage and leads me to it.
I thank her and only just resist the urge to hug my luggage. Fresh clothes after only twenty-four hours- wonderful.
While I’m waiting for the shuttle to the Park Plaza airport hotel, I call my wife and tell her that my day has been rescued. She’s pleased for me and cheers me up.
While I am in it, I’m sure that the best part of my day is the shower that I take as soon as I get into my room. It turns out I’m wrong. The best part is dinner. The main public rooms in the hotel are being refurbished so the restaurant has all the ambience of a construction site. I almost head back to my room and order room service, but a waitress spots me, gives me a smile and says “What can I get you to drink.”
I like Dutch restaurants. In my experience, the staff are friendly and efficient without being at all servile. They offer hospitality not obsequiousness. I avoid the on tap Heineken and take a Affligem Dubbel, a strong dark Belgium beer that is slightly sweet and which I think is perfect with food. The food is a beetroot salad with goat’s cheese, grilled swordfish steak with asparagus and pont neuf fries and a plate of cheese, the best of which is Old Amsterdam.
It is all perfectly done and speedily served. I sit, reading my novel “The Knowland Retribution” (which has a good deal in it about food poisoning but I don’t dwell on such things in the presence of good food.)
By 22.30 I’m in bed.
From 05.30 to 06.00 I’m on my email, catching up on all the things I’ve missed in the past couple of days. At 7.45 I catch the shuttle to airport, take breakfast in the KLM Lounge while doing more email and then fly back to Geneva.
I’m home around noon. My wife has cooked salmon and mashed potatoes, a perfect welcome home.
Today is the last day before Easter, a four day weekend here, so of course my afternoon is taken up with phone calls and emails. Very little of what I write or say is about content. Mostly, I’m connecting people with one another, or sharing information or suggesting approaches to clients and projects.
At 18.00 I shut down my phone and switch off my laptop. This is aberrant behaviour in this “always on” world, but I find it necessary for my continuing sanity. I allow myself an hour to finish the “Knowland Retribution” and then I let the weekend begin.