I’d never stayed in a posh hotel before. I’d not even stayed in a bed and breakfast. People like us didn’t do that sort of thing. I’d stayed in caravans, or camped, or lodged with my parents’ friends, once or twice. After the age of about five we didn’t take that many holidays. The business couldn’t be left, my parents said. I can remember a holiday with my mother, and one, a few years later, with my father. At the age of twelve, confronted with the prospect of learning French, I really couldn’t see the point. What one earth would I need to know a foreign language for? Unless, of course, there was another war.

The posh hotel had nothing to do with holidays. It was a business course that my father sent me on. Run by a multi-national it was based at a training centre out of town, where they’d mocked up a whole business we could play around in, but they put us up, for four or five nights, in a four-star, city centre hotel. I was the youngest on the course by a decade, and the next youngest was more than a decade younger than the rest. They were all men. Men, in the main, still fronted businesses in those days. They weren’t businessmen though, even if that’s the way they might have been described. That’s why they were on the course – to learn how to run their businesses.

A business is an organisation set up to make a profit for its owners. That was, and I suppose still is, the mantra. Those of us on the course – the older ones that is – hadn’t cottoned on to that. They thought it was something to do with putting your skills to the service of your community, and making a living in exchange. What they were, in the main, was craftsmen who, by virtue of being self-employed had found themselves owning businesses. The multi-national needed them to be more efficient, at selling its product, at keeping themselves afloat.

I remember the first session we took part in, when we were asked question we didn’t even understand, let alone know the answers to. How many times do you turn over your stock in a year? Let me put it another way. How long does it take you to sell the amount of stock you can hold? Blank paper in front of us. Blank faces. The age differences fell away.

We were each given six pounds in cash– to buy ourselves whatever we needed during the week. It seemed a fortune then – before the first oil crisis.

In the evenings we spent our six pounds – it must have been six pounds a day, surely? – on a meal, and drinks, and sat in the bar and talked. These were men who had been young in the war – the 1939-45 one – but were now middle aged, and pushing old. The younger one said he had a tart waiting in his room, if anybody wanted a go before he went up. I think that was to impress me, but he had to explain what sort of tart he meant before I got the allusion, which perhaps took the shine off it for him. I declined the offer anyway.

Fifty years on and I wonder what changes and what stays the same, and at how ideas drift slowly from place to place, colouring the future and coloured by the past.

The entertainer, Harry Secombe, probably best known for being one of the ‘Goons’, was staying at the same hotel and wandered in to the lounge late one night where we were sitting. He did the voice of Neddie Seagoon for us and asked if we were having a good time, ‘boys’? Then his minders steered him away. Celebrities seemed further from us in those days, though, I think, they were probably closer. The old men on that course had lived through the same war as Secombe, Milligan, and Sellers. Wherever they had started out that common experience gave them a connection to Secombe that was not purely to do with having seen his act on TV, and I can recall sensing it as I slumped in my leather chair and witnessed the exchange. The Goonshow now has an online page, is still aired and can be bought as discs or downloads.

I did two courses over a period of a couple of years before leaving my father’s business, which he retired from and sold a couple of years after that. The first taught rudimentary accounting and budgetary control, the second, marketing and merchandising. My father never learnt to be a businessman, in the way that the multi-national meant. I never learned to be a craftsman – not even in words you might think I should add.

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