Any other business

How do I ever get speaking gigs? I’m guessing it goes like this…

Plus: Seeing my father in the BT archive; and hoping for a normal new year

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

To Brighton, to address a conference of property investors. Unusually, I find myself programmed alongside both Gerard Lyons, City economist turned Mayor Boris’s adviser, who is notably upbeat in his forecast, and Robert Peston, who is distinctly downbeat in an extended after-dinner lecture with graphs, but gets away with it because his voice mannerisms are so compelling and women in the audience are fascinated by his new haircut.

I do a lot of this kind of work and always enjoy it, but what’s different this time is that I’m more accustomed to being booked as a stand-in for the likes of Pesto and Lyons than as a stand-up awards-ceremony-compère sandwiched between them — the solo gigs generally coming my way after phone calls to the speaker agency that, I imagine, go something like this…

‘Hello, we’d like to book that brainy sexpot Robert Peston off the telly to light up our business conference.’

‘Certainly, madam. That will be 50,000 guineas plus a helicopter to the venue.’

‘Aha, I see. Perhaps someone a bit less expensive? How much is Boris Johnson?

‘Can’t book him for love or money — or indeed both — these days, madam, I’m afraid. He’s so dedicated to his mayoral duties and nursing his Uxbridge seat. And anyway he’s the keynote speaker at the Gulf Business Ethics Awards in Dubai that day.’

Pro bono, no doubt?’

‘I couldn’t possibly say, madam. But while we’re on the subject, how about Bono himself? Or Russell Brand…

‘Spare me. I’ll try another agency…’

‘Oh no, madam, I’m sure we can oblige. Have you thought of genial Gerard Lyons, only 5,000 bitcoins plus a stretch limo full of lap dancers? Or Ant and Dec: frankly, their price is dropping so fast we can probably do buy-one-get-one-free…’

‘Look, I’m very sorry, but our budget really is tight this year. Haven’t you got anyone who’ll do it for a box of chocolates and a bus fare?’

‘Well, you could try that bloke from The Spectator. Doesn’t know much about economics but he’s a bundle of laughs with a couple of drinks inside him, and he’d be glad of the chance to shift some copies of his new book, Any Other Business: Life in and out of the City…’

Thirty years on

To High Holborn to visit BT’s archives, the Bodleian Library of British telecommunications, hidden above something most of us assume now exists only in cyberspace or science museums: a working telephone exchange. Here are fascinating byways of social history, from the first London directory of 1880 — which contained no numbers, because in those days you just picked up the instrument and said things like ‘This is the young Countess of Grantham who will one day be a feisty dowager, put me through to naughty Prince Kuragin’ — to a forgotten 1970s ad campaign featuring Jimmy Savile.

But for me, this is a melancholy encounter because I’ve come in search of my late father, Deryk Vander Weyer. As BT’s deputy chairman (having moved there from Barclays) and the company’s face to the City, he played a central role in the privatisation completed in December 1984, of which BT has just been celebrating the 30th anniversary. The £3.9 billion share offering was not only a milestone of Thatcherism in action but also a remarkable example of teamwork and professionalism in the old City, before a more rapacious trading-floor mentality took hold after Big Bang in 1986.

Eight times larger than any previous issue and many times more complex, the sale was the product of fierce negotiation with ministers, lawyers, brokers and bankers — among whom the technical genius was the young David Clementi, later deputy governor of the Bank of England, and the high-level problem-solver was occasional Spectator contributor Martin Jacomb, both of Kleinwort Benson. My father was in the thick of it throughout, and was the front man for ‘roadshows’ to North America and Japan.

In the end the project was a triumph, attracting global institutions as well as more than two million retail investors, many buying shares for the first time, and 96 per cent of BT’s workforce. Nigel Lawson, then chancellor, called it ‘the birth of people’s capitalism’ — a concept that has sadly lost its resonance today. For my father, always fully committed to whatever he took on, it was the most intense experience of his working life and he was proud of the outcome.

But when I look at archive photographs of him celebrating with the bankers and his BT colleagues, I see a man of 59 made old before his time by physical strain and the lung disease that would end his career two years later and cause his death at 65. And I remember that he was 30 years older than me to within three days; the man in the pictures was exactly the age I am now. I think of him very often, and sometimes talk to him in dreams.

Glad to be normal

After an autumn of travels, I’m happy to be back in Helmsley, my Yorkshire home town. I’m not in panto this season, having had to pull out of last year’s Aladdin on the eve of dress rehearsal when my appendix suddenly went into a song-and-dance routine all of its own; instead I’m preparing to direct an amateur production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Everyone remembers Amanda saying ‘Very flat, Norfolk’, and Elyot saying ‘Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.’ But my own favourite line in this sparkling play belongs to the second husband whom Amanda abandons after rekindling the flame with Elyot, her first: ‘I’m glad I’m normal,’ says poor old Victor. I think we’d all be glad of some normality over the next 12 months — an economy that’s neither too hot nor too flat nor turning cold again, a banking sector that’s not behaving badly, and an election that keeps a Conservative crew in Downing Street faute de mieux. I wish you a calm Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

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