Sing Like You Know the Words, page 34
-Thanks, but they don´t sound like anything in my line.
-Well then, maybe if you find your way back to England you could return them to that friend of mine. In a way they are part of his story.
-How does the second one turn out?
-It´s not conclusive. But in the end, the material interests always extract what they demand in the name of progress. My Charles Gould will go to hell defending his silver mine.
-I have no idea what you’re talking about.
-I´m raving probably. I´m beyond everything now. One final thing, I wanted to tell you that I´ve discovered the secret of the English abroad: they´re capable of finding a practical way through every difficulty, by blocking every perception of disagreeable consequences that may follow from pursuing their own self-interest. Deciding not to think about something, is a faculty they have evolved to the point where it defines them. At the end of all, the Englishman sees that he has endured, and concludes that this means that his behaviour was right and proper.
-Well that´s my own philosophy Albert, in a nutshell; and summed up very prettily. I wish we could sit and chat for longer; I really do. By the way, you never did tell me your real name. In case there’s anybody I should tell.
-There’s no one to tell. I´d prefer to be allowed to disappear into Africa.
A memory brightened Ray´s expression.
-Someone else used to say that. Andrei, do you remember him? We were with him in Addis Ababa that time. He said that once you spent time in Africa you could never really leave. Mind you he hated the cold. Came from Siberia you know, one of those oil towns that is cut off half the year. Studied languages so hard, just to get away.
-I remember. What´s he doing now?
-He´s got a big ranch somewhere near Port Elizabeth. Never went home. He did all right when that Soviet thing finished, I don´t know the details. Said he didn´t want to move to Cyprus or anywhere else that´s lousy with other rich Russian thieves.
-How is it you always know so much about people, Ray?
-People interest me. It´s books and ideas for you, people for me.
They fell silent for a moment. Albert shifted painfully, attempting to support his weight more easily.
-You know, after the American Civil War, the slaves who were freed, were allowed to come to Africa. They were helped to come. The place they settled, they called Liberia; from the word liberty I suppose. What do you suppose they did as soon as they got here?
-I don’t know
-They enslaved the first black men they saw and set them to building plantations and southern style mansions so that they could walk around in frock coats and play the master.
-And does that tell us something about blacks?
-No. Only about human nature in general. It’s not enough for humans to have all they need. They have to deprive and brutalize others to feel really good about themselves.
-You know, I think it is time for me to be done with all this. I hurt just about everywhere. We might as well get on with it.
A few minutes later, the escort heard the muffled noise of a single shot being fired behind the locked door, barely audible above the noise of the cannon. The big white man emerged looking not very friendly. The lieutenant judged that the work was done and ordered his men back to the jeep. He stepped inside himself briefly, just to check. He argued briefly with the artillery officer over what should be done with the body. Neither of them wanted to take responsibility for dumping it, in case the Big Man should ask to see it afterwards, so in the end they simply put the lock back on the door.
The big white man was very quiet on the way back to the Presidential residence, in a way that made the men in the jeep watchful, but the lieutenant supposed that he and the other white men would have learned their lesson, that here they were only men, and death could come to white and black, just the same.
His private life was in such turmoil that Matthew hardly noticed when the shareholders of Cromwell voted to accept an offer to acquire all shares from a mysterious bidder called Pelican Global. It was not a business that anyone had ever heard of, but it did seem to have almost limitless acquisition funds available.
The takeover would mean that the link between David and the company would finally be broken. Even if he had not been so distracted by politics, there would not have been much that he could do about it. He still had shares, but these days he could be outvoted. In any case, the reality was that now that he was a member of parliament, David had moved on to another stage of his life. There was all the excitement and ceremony of his first term at Westminster: a new game with complicated rules to be learned. There was the feeling that he was going to be part of a tide of change that had just begun to swell before sweeping over all that needed to be washed away.
David might have other concerns, but Matthew had to inform his readers about the new owners of the works and what plans they had for the future.
Matthew found the offices of Cromwell Industries much changed since he was last there, though the plant itself looked no different. In the offices, there were more people, more workstations, more phones, more glass. An elegant assistant informed him that Mr Pearson would be with him presently, when he finished talking with head office.
Eventually he was shown into the executive suite and introduced to Dan Pearson, a tall man, quite lean, with a strong jaw and a broad smile. They shook hands
-I’m very grateful to you for making the time to see me Mr Pearson. I appreciate you are very busy.
-It’s we who are grateful to you Matthew. Local connections are key to our success. We are very conscious that we engage in a partnership with our communities. We want to play our part. I’m sure this profile will help.
-Well, thank you. You should know, I don’t normally work on the business pages, but there is a lot of local interest right now. I suppose we’ll mostly use the handout that your assistant provided for our piece, it’s very…
-I was going to say, on message, but yes. Anyway, just one or two questions to flesh things out.
-Thank you again. Maybe a little human interest, to give a background if you don’t-object? You’re English I believe?
-That´s correct. We have a place in Surrey. That’s where my children go to school.
-So England is home to you?
-Well, as you know, Pelican is a global business, so work takes me pretty much everywhere, but it is good to have the chance to spend a year or two working in the UK, yes.
-And could you explain exactly what it is that Pelican does? I’m sorry, as I say I’m not really a business journalist. Maybe you could tell me in words that our general readers will understand. You’re not just an engineering company?
-Good lord no. That´s a good question though, Matt. As it says in our handout, we specialize in leveraging assets to maximise shareholder return, but I guess that sounds like jargon to you. So no, we are not an engineering company in the sense that you mean. We like to think that we engineer efficiencies.
-And how does that work?
-Well, in effect, we buy companies where we can see that there is a good opportunity to improve them, to boost their value by making them more efficient. We realize those efficiencies and then we return those companies to the market.
-And, if you can say, do you think that, in local terms, that process is likely to mean fewer jobs. You know that has particular interest for our readers. I understand you already own a plant similar to this one in the Far East.
-Malaysia actually, but that really is a different business to Cromwell. This is a business with a very high skill base. If I had to guess, I’d say that we would probably hope to recruit more people in this area over the next few years. The current medium term forecasts for demand look very promising. Of course you know I can’t say too much – can’t risk giving you information that might be market sensitive. And naturally, we always remain respons
-That’s reassuring, I think. Could you tell me though, are there any plans to invest in replacement plant? Some people have told me that the production line here is not as up to date as it should be.
-That is another interesting point Matt, but you know typically, at Pelican, we don’t so much look to change the long term infrastructure of our acquisitions; though that’s not to say it couldn’t happen if we found a business need. The capital structure of our business is more geared towards acquisition, improvement and then passing on to a long term holder of the asset. Normally we’d be invested for, say, two to three years at most; and you might not see a return on new plant in that time.
-So in effect, you borrow the money to buy the company, service the debt from its revenues and then sell it on for a higher price?
-There’s more to it than that. I wish it were that simple: but at a very basic level, yes.
-Thanks Mr Pearson, I’m sure it’s all in the handout but you are making things much clearer for me
-So finally, and thanks again for your time, you mentioned market conditions earlier
-How do you see those conditions affecting the business in the future? I mean, could you tell us what factors might affect your decisions?
-You’ll find that summarised in our annual report, but in the end, the market decides for us all
-And how do you know when the market has decided?
-Finally, for us, it’s about the shareholder value. Like any company, our duty is to get the best deal for our shareholders
-Interesting; so that’s the only rule, ultimately
-That’s the way things are. It’s always been that way in business.
-Thanks Mr Pearson, you’ve been very generous with your time. I’m grateful to you for explaining things to me so clearly.
-No problem. If you think of anything else you need later, give me a call.
Matthew went back to the office and told the business reporter, an earnest boy who always wore a suit to work, to print a simplified version of the Pelican handout with a short introduction in the English language. He left the boy to pen it, saying that he had to give some bad news to an old friend. If I have to bet, the factory will be closed within the year, he thought.
Later that day, Pearson met with his finance director and human resources chief to discuss the plans for shutting down Cromwell and moving the contracts to Malaysia.
-I have to say it’s not a bad little business, Finance was saying. Better than we´d expected.
-We’ll run it to the end of the year. That’s a decent interval and long enough to discover that the market has moved against our forecast. Changing international economy, sharp downturn in our expectations. Usual stuff. If it gets rough we can hint at years of under investment by previous ownership, but not too heavy with that. What do the closedown costs look like?
-It’s the UK Dan; it’s not like France or Germany. A lot of the workforce has been here a long time, which pushes up their entitlements a little, but still peanuts, comparatively.
Human Resources sounded like he wanted to get started on the severances right away, but Finance had a query.
-Are you certain we need to play it this way?
Pearson looked disgusted.
-Ron, are you with me or against me here? You know as well as I do that I’m six months into a two year rotation here as top guy here in Europe. If things go well, I am looking at main board, Asia Pacific region after that. And the two of you will be with me all the way, I hope. We need to shift some assets and do it now. You’ve seen the numbers: if we start developing this business now it will soak up cost. We’re looking at seventeen to twenty-three months to see the improvement on the base case. We might struggle to make our bonus numbers. And what will the situation be in two years? Correct: you and I will have moved on and someone else will take the credit. Both of us know Ron, that in the real world, that isn´t going to happen.
David was on the television again. This time it was the regional news magazine. The outside broadcast consisted of a few junior reporters being filmed outside the barracks of the various Yorkshire based regiments, trying not to look miserable in the rain as they speculated on what mobilisation might mean for the troops and their families. Next, the scene shifted to the studio, where David and the senior presenter were seated in front of a monitor watching the end of the last item.
- And after that summary, here to discuss the situation we have local MP David Thomas, good evening. David, you´re respected in Westminster for your views on international affairs. You´ve been tipped as a future foreign office minister. I think you were also a lawyer before entering politics. What response do you have for the growing numbers of people in our region who argue that it would be illegal as well as wrong for Britain to join the United States in military action in Iraq?
On the screen, it hardly seemed like David: he looked older and heavier; a figure of authority. With his dark suit and his practised gestures, he seemed almost presidential.
-Can I say firstly, no one feels more than I the gravity of a potential use of military force. Clearly the government must consider situations like the present crisis very carefully, taking on board all sides of the argument. But in the end, it is the fundamental responsibility of the government of this country to safeguard the security of its people. Having considered what we know, and unfortunately not all of that information can be made public for very good reasons; our judgement, is that there is a threat to the United Kingdom that is present and real. In that circumstance, this government has to be prepared to take action with our American allies.
David´s voice was sombre to the point of exaggeration, like a disappointed parent lecturing a naughty child. Now the interviewer was speaking again.
-Mr Thomas, you’ve spoken from time to time about your faith, and how it’s made you stronger in politics. If there is a war there will be innocent victims. Tell us, how do you reconcile your belief with being prepared to see innocent people bombed?
David was leaning forward, on the edge of his seat, to hear the question, nodding his understanding of the difficulty. He frowned and his hands came together for a moment, as if in prayer. Then he sat back in the chair to deliver his considered response.
-I can´t pretend that is an easy question, and the first thing to say is that we all hope there won’t be a war. We´re confronting an evil dictator, who has killed many thousands of his own people, but even now we are prepared to work with him for a peaceful solution. If a conflict is forced on us, then we have to make every effort to minimise the effect on civilian populations; but we have to be honest; there are bound to be some tragedies. It comes to this, in my judgement; we have to ask ourselves whether those tragedies outweighed the good that we can do, by our intervention, for the people of Iraq, and for our own people.
Matthew didn´t want to see any more, but he couldn´t bring himself to switch off. It wasn´t that it was David: he´d learned by now to separate his friend from the image he read about or saw on the screen. But how could any of them talk like this? It was the same story as the Falklands War and the war after that. He was only waiting for one of them to say, it´s all bollocks: Tony can tell that cowboy in the White House to get on with it on his own if he wants. Wouldn´t that be what David liked to call leadership?
But it wouldn´t happen, and in his heart Matthew knew why only a few marginal figures would have the nerve for that. It was a lack of confidence that went back to the Michael Foot years and the ghosts of ninety three: it was the safety blanket of party discipline, and the secret fear of being found out, after pretending to be the same as the Tories to get power. Now they were all terrified of being caught showing progressive sympathies. It went back even further than past political disappointments. It was what he´d told David years ago about a generation of ex-grammar school boys becoming more conformist than their predecessors; only trying to fit i
But some of the arguments about this war were even too childish for schoolboys. Don’t argue with the big boy. We know he’s a bully, but maybe we can stop him doing anything too beastly if we play along with him.
Matthew had listened to David telling him privately that the Americans were going to attack Iraq whatever anyone thought about it. Some country had to pay for terrorist acts committed on their own soil, but all the perpetrators came from countries that were allies. Iraq was the best available target for vengeance, and since the American public remembered Sadaam as a cartoon villain from the time of the first desert war, the administration had an easy job with public opinion. All that the Foreign Office could hope for was to give what was going to happen some appearance of legitimacy. The same man who´d told him this was now on television stoking the fires and talking about balancing the greater good.
Matthew was trying to write an editorial on his laptop. The subject seemed meaningless just now. He put his head in his hands for a moment, wondering what he could write about such a situation even if he could get it printed. It seemed a case of four legs good, two legs better; and already too late to see which was pig and which was man.
Two days later, when David left the house in the morning and went to his car, he was surprised to notice a tarpaulin of heavy plastic sheeting pitched just outside his gate, on the grassy expanse between the high garden wall and the road. Someone had put up a makeshift tent. A handful of people were standing around it. When they saw him they began chanting. He didn’t stop to listen to the words. He got in the car and was about to drive on, but seeing one of the figures made him pause. He was sure that was Tim standing with them. He had to go and check.
Tim greeted him brightly.
-Hi David. Nice morning for a demo; could be warmer; never mind.
-What are you doing?
-It’s not what I’m doing mate, it’s what you´re doing. Come to remind you about some basics. You know what? Killing people is wrong, especially when there’s no good reason for it.