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The True Story of What Happened when the Great-Great-Grandson of Charles Dickens Packed in the Ratrace to Run Away to Sea for a Year ...
By Ian Dickens
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2003 Ian Dickens
All rights reserved.
King's Cross railway station is an odd place to start drowning. Especially on a train emerging from a tunnel, on an unremarkable Monday morning in mid-September.
The grime-encrusted brickwork picked up the first glimmers of early-morning light as the slowly turning wheels clanked and ground their way out of the darkness.
A lone green fern grew out of the wall, fed by the meagre rays and the constant subterranean drip-drip from the street above. But the falling droplets would never be enough to deal the fatal blow to my lungs.
Alongside, a diesel-belching 125 crept slowly past, its fly-spattered windscreen heading away from the light, towards a hundred business meetings in Leeds, Bradford, Darlington and Peterborough.
The train stopped with a jolt once more and I watched as the red-underlined, slick first-class carriages of the InterCity paraded their important passengers slowly by. A voyeuristic elongated curtain call from a cast of grey-suited, laptop-tapping, coffee-sipping, FT-reading, loudly speaking, telephone-calling management. Their journey had only just started, but even now, at eight in the morning, the jacketless white shirts were already building a heavy sweat of frustration as the telephone signal went down, the secretary was still on voicemail and the e-mail from head office introduced an out-swinger from left of field, creating different ball parks that would need ongoing dialogue before flags could be raised to check for flutterings.
My throat started to tighten a little and I eased my tie open.
In my own carriage, people stirred. Papers were folded, coats collected, briefcases snapped shut and wobbling queues made their swaying way to the door in order to snap up pole position on the race to the tube.
A hiss of air released the eager throng and the seething mass strode off to the exit, carrying me along in a tidal wave of smartly tapping, briskly pacing, eager-to-hit-the-ground-running feet.
Like rivers pouring towards the sea, several further tributaries joined the main current and individuals, with personalities, wives, husbands, children, hobbies, hopes and dreams that existed in mortgaged homes in Huntingdon and Sandy, Biggleswade and Cambridge, Hitchin and Stevenage, became a small amoeba of unimportant matter – a tiny part of a gigantic cancerous cell which carried them in a surge towards a gaping hole in the ground.
They tumbled like a torrent down the steps and swirled headlong around corners, through ticket halls and barriers and on, downwards, into the bowels of the earth.
They filled the underground platforms and packed on to the Circle line train so tightly their breathing had to become unified in order to share the space.
I stood gasping for breath as the current swept me along like a piece of flotsam, bobbing and swirling in the raging confusion of white water that tore a path of its own choosing, taking out anything that dared to stand in its way.
There was no courtesy or queue to get on board the tube train that was now disgorging passengers like projectile vomit. As they poured out of the carriages in a counter-current to the fast-flowing tide, there was the normal jostle, with every man and – more often than not – an even more aggressive woman securing their own place. No 'women and children first' on this Monday morning. People trying to get off were ignored. People with suitcases were glared at. The man who had stopped to help the harassed mother and her pushchair were easy prey to the crowds behind, who swept around the stationary island and looked on smugly through the glass as the train pulled away, leaving him behind on the platform.
But despite my lack of oxygen, I was happy to help a fellow struggler with a lifebelt or two.
We had an entire two minutes to wait, the mum, her baby and I, for the next train – a lifetime in the race to the desk and the podium, with its gold medal, would never countenance such moments of selflessness.
I supposed I should have been bothered by my lack of enthusiasm in not taking the competition seriously enough, but the baby in the pushchair was cute and her mother pathetically grateful that someone had broken the rules.
I made it through the two stops and fought my way back up into the sunlight for the final dash. I was on the surface again now, allowing the current to take me at its own pace as it babbled around the traffic bollards and news stands. Turn right, forty strokes, angle across the road with an inelegant front crawl, along the parade of shops with a nod of a hello to the ironmonger treading water unlocking his security grilles, a nod to the long-serving street sweeper I nodded to every morning, a nod to the Big Issue seller, and it was backstroke down the final street before arriving at the steps of my office.
And it was here that the deep-end dangers really began to lurk. Predators with big teeth awaited below the oily calm of the corporate surface that lapped up to the shores of my desk.
It had not always been like that, though.
For twenty very happy years I had done the same journey without too much thought, swimming happily in a unique and privileged environment for an organisation that had the character and personality of a large family firm.
At the head, a jolly, paternal, visionary, larger-than-life character. Shunning further education, he had headed to sea aged sixteen and learnt hard lessons from the deck of a series of rusty freighters that slowly ploughed the waters of the Atlantic, the St Lawrence, the Caribbean and the English Channel. Life was learnt from bar room brawls, from cockroach-infested digs, from over-made-up ladies of the night, from late-night drinking, from smoky cafés in dank and desolate docksides, where grey cranes towered, storage sheds echoed and forklift trucks rolled, on the edges of some of the world's great cities.
That experience left him a unique observer of people, with a wisdom and a wit that made him equally at home with a peer of the realm and a London cabbie.
His name was Barry and I considered it my huge good fortune to join the company he ran, in the most junior of junior positions.
'Sales office order entry clerk, three weeks holiday, starting salary £5,000' was what it said on my contract but despite that lowly start, I was the first person he came to see, and offered a warm welcome to my first Monday morning in July 1979.
For the next two decades his charismatic leadership continued to create an environment that was hard-working, fun, original, creative and, when the work stopped and the partying began, often exhausting.
As the corporate years passed, a mass of opportunities found their way to my door and saw me rise through the ranks to the heady heights of marketing director, representing the interests of the UK company on behalf of the Japanese HQ and its German-based European sidekicks.
I was suddenly important. A bulging deluxe Filofax, the ubiquitous mobile phone, a smart company car, rich holidays and a gently bulging stomach from expense-account lunches in Langans, the Ivy and Harvey Nic's Fifth Floor.
Throughout that time, Barry's attitude remained unchanged and he approached business with the same rare zest allied to an eager desire to squash pomposity. Bullshitters were shat upon and his focus on common sense was liberating to work alongside.
'Why are we doing that?' he would reply to an accountant desperately overeager to complicate proceedings. 'We are doing it because it's fucking obvious, that's why!' No research, no focus groups, no think tanks. Just pure common sense allied to a laterally thinking mind that clearly understood the people he wanted to market to.
But the heady days of the eighties gave way to the hard-nosed nineties, and with the planet closing in on the new millennium, Barry had to endure an ever-increasing number of periods when his head was held under the surface by a new European way of doing things at odds with his own well-proven beliefs.
Forget the success he had managed so well for so many years. In other quarters, a new and 'better' way was being proposed. What had worked well in the UK seemed to be viewed with an ill-concealed envy and, instead of encouraging, nurturing and learning from the example, it was deemed better to wipe the slate clean and introduce a whole series of new approaches led by a European team.
Nothing he saw convinced him that this offered a better future and rather than drown in the cesspit of stagnant waters, he cashed in his quarter of a century of success and struck out for the shore and the freedom of early retirement.
We had forged a special partnership and had created a series of award-winning marketing campaigns that filled the boardroom with an embarrassment of framed riches.
I was devastated to see him go and even more concerned that, with my long-term ally gone, I would probably be next in line for the dunking sessions.
I headed up a project to create a new advertising campaign for all of Europe – a first for our now border-squashing company. After nine trying and rather lonely months, the fruits of the ad team's labour broke in sixteen countries.
A few months later, sales reached new levels of success.
The success of the work again created a debilitating envy and a nasty campaign of negativity flew towards my desk. I had not followed the European way as I was expected to do, and as Ian-bashing from across the Channel became all the rage, one or two who should have known better in London decided, with a firm eye on their future careers, that it would be useful for them to join in too.
The negativity reached its peak and the marketing campaign that had been so effective was deemed a disastrous waste of time and resource. It was scant consolation when the work was entered into the industry's annual awards a couple of months later and walked off with the top accolades from juries all over the world. By that stage I was well and truly disillusioned with an uncomfortably large number of people who, for twenty years, I thought were on the same side as me.
It was into that bubbling pool that I plunged on that September Monday morning, hoping beyond hope that the weekend had allowed me to put things into perspective. Opening e-mails, listening to voicemails and reading faxes that demanded I report to Germany in the next twenty-four hours to answer yet more charges of nonsense put paid to that. My battles were now almost exclusively against individuals who had the same company name on their business card, and the excessive energy spent fending off the predators seemed such a waste of a beautiful day.
I also had to consider the uncomfortable possibility that the European view was maybe right, even though twenty years of experience shrieked, 'No!' Perhaps the Teutonic vision had a real foundation for a new future and the English oak tree that I was barking up was the wrong one.
Whatever, I did not want to spoil my two decades of valued working pleasure with months of misery that would end up leaving me bitter, twisted and thoroughly fed up.
Clearly, this was a battle I could not win and it would have been easier for my sanity to start looking for another job. But when I shared the concerns with friends, they looked astonished at my angst. So long in one company, led by a visionary leader, had protected me from the ravages of the modern corporation. The scenes I described were deemed completely normal – mild even – compared with some of the shockers that my more battled-scarred mates had experienced on a daily basis.
And if that was sobering, other much more valuable influences came to bear and helped remind me of where my priorities should really lie. A colleague (an unscheming one) was one day perfectly fit and the next doubled up in agony with what appeared to be a back problem.
Tests followed tests and slowly a much more serious picture emerged. It was cancer, an unkind one, and work, home, wife and children all became replaced by courses of chemotherapy, loss of hair, sallow skin and a terrified look in his sunken eyes as the prospect of death before the age of forty loomed large.
Suddenly, being a head of a department or having a smarter car than a colleague or staying in a junior suite rather than a standard room, paled against his desire to simply walk out into the back garden and kick a ball with his young son again.
He battled hard for several months, made it through the longest night, when the family were called to say tear-strewn goodbyes around his beeping, tube-infested hospital bed, and fought his way into the light of a new day and merciful remission.
A farmer from a village near my home, only a few years older than me and a great character, had started to feel unwell.
We went to see him at Addenbrokes Hospital, where he sat, a frightened and suddenly small man, not knowing what had gone wrong. Unbeknown to any of us, a tumour was slowly eating into his brain and six months later this strong, funny, warm-hearted father of a beautiful young child lay ranting in a private mad world at the local hospice.
His funeral was, in the end, a blessing.
A pilot whom I was privileged to meet vanished into the heavens. A brilliant flyer, respected by all who knew him, who flew stunts for Spielberg and charmed all those whose lives he touched, had one slip and his thousands of hours of experience suddenly counted for nothing. His Messerschmitt plunged to the ground and the impact and explosive fire took him away too.
All were people of my sort of age, now being remembered amid the tears, and the fragility of life was brought well and truly home. When one is made aware of such a fragile thread, the rail journey, the tube, the meetings and the unbelievable pettiness of it all are brought into sharp focus.
I was healthy, successful, lucky to have a loving, supportive family and a wonderful home. I had achieved a lot professionally, met enough fascinating and famous people to fill Hello!, and through my friendships been privileged to enjoy a number of very special moments.
The back seat of a Hawk jet with the Red Arrows. The Williams pit garage in Japan when a friend became world motor-racing champion. Being at Wembley to see Chelsea lift the FA Cup. The helicopter trip in to the Grand Canyon with a party of journalists. The run up to London in a Royal Navy submarine. The breathtaking descents of the Cresta Run. Learning to fly and gaining my pilot's licence. The many opportunities that had come my way from the people I had met over two decades of corporate life.
My portfolio of achievements was good and I seemed to be respected within the industry for all that I had achieved. Was my existing predicament really so bad that all this was worth giving up, just because a new band of people had new views about how the future should be shaped? And if I did move on professionally, would I simply be exchanging my nine-to-five commuting day for another, perhaps less bright hamster wheel, that even now lurked in the file of an unsuspecting headhunter somewhere in London?
Or perhaps now was the time to have a complete change of direction, sell up, move away, downscale, live simply and opt out of the race that seemed to be more and more dominated by the rats.
The salary, the bonus, the car, the expense account, the opportunities, the travel, the house, the holidays, the large garden, the privileges. Was this really exchangeable, especially when I was not on my own and had the responsibilities of others to consider?
The answer was a mixed-up 'Yes/I don't truly know/probably/I'm not sure/don't be such a bloody fool'. But, with the events at work clashing with the dramas of the cancer ward, the local hospice and a lone Spitfire dipping a saddened wing over a pilot's funeral in tribute, I had at least come to the conclusion that something needed to happen. Something or someone deep in my subconscious was giving me a heavy-handed prod, and chucked a lifebelt on the surface of the swirling water right under my nose.
I grabbed it and started to swim.CHAPTER 2
As a marketing man I'd spent much of my time proving to companies that investing money in a fine advertising agency generated an excellent return for them in terms of additional sales.
At the end of the following week, the marketing people at a company called Clipper Ventures could make the same claim to their superiors. They had created a single-page, colour, right-facing ad and booked space in the Sunday Times supplement. All they had to do was sit back to wait for a reaction and they didn't have to wait long to get one from me.
A picture of an ocean-going racing yacht storming along under reefed sails on a wave-flecked ocean. A headline beckoning the adventurer. A number to call. The seductive line that offered the bored breakfast-table reader the chance to break away and achieve something truly exceptional. Anyone, the ad said, could earn themselves a place on board and compete in a yacht race that circumnavigated the planet.
Excerpted from Sea Change by Ian Dickens. Copyright © 2003 Ian Dickens. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
2 Advertising Works,
3 Easy Goodbyes,
4 Getting a Proper Job,
5 Hard Goodbyes,
6 Ready, Steady, Drift!,
7 In The Wake of Columbus,
8 Caribbean Blues,
9 Doldrums December,
10 Santa on Santa Cruz,
11 Aloha Goodbya,
12 Turning Japanese,
13 Seconds Out, Head for Home,
14 Christmas in May,
15 Cape Crusaders,
17 New York, New York,
18 Racing in Perspective,
19 Splashdown and Re-Entry,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved this book...it was hard to put down! Mr. Dickens writes in a very colorful, descriptive way that draws you into the story as though you were there. I highly recommend reading it. Hope he writes more!