It was the mid 1990s. We were, you may be surprised to learn or depressed to recall, emerging from the last recession, it too caused by hard-to-credit greed and stupidity.
I was working as an actor. Yes, working although this particular job felt morally equivocal. It involved playing the part of a disgruntled, rather pretentious graduate, which for me did not need much getting into character. The young man’s name was Robert Blair and he was on the graduate program for a water company.
He was arrogant but this was as much to do with poor management on the water company’s part as it was with youth and inexperience on Robert’s. Robert was forever trying to get a meeting with his graduate mentor, an executive in the water company called Graham Milne. Robert never succeeded in tracking Graham down. This situation tells us that Robert expected things to just happen for him without much creative thinking and gave up too easily. It also tells us Graham Milne was probably a dick.
Robert had failed to impress in any of his placements. He missed the point that one of the ways to succeed in business is to understand the people who do the actual work. The engineers laughed at him and the guys in the office delegated the filing to him. Robert’s pride was dented, his feelings hurt. This wasn’t how he had imagined his career to be!
I played out a scenario in which Robert had been assigned a new mentor. In the meantime, Robert had convinced himself that he was entitled to an allowance for driving lessons and that he should be on the water company’s business MA program. Graham Milne, despite never having met Robert, had decided not only was a raise not applicable and the MA out of the question but that Robert hadn’t made the grade. It was 50/50 whether he should remain employed.
The candidate in the mock-interview was briefed according to the facts above and told to make the best of it. All the candidates were existing managers in the water company. The reason I felt that my position was morally equivocal was that if they didn’t succeed they faced redundancy.
There’s a line at the end of King Lear when the guy who hangs Cordelia explains how he’s able to do it, which comes down to having had no work for a year. My position was similar, although without the death. Most of my incarnations as Robert Blair were for actual job interviews but these first two sessions are the ones that haunt me slightly. I say slightly because some of these managers were so horrible there’s no way they should have been in charge of anything let alone people.
The rating was done using a Myers-Briggs psychometric test. I had very hazy ideas of self-identity then and the notion that a couple of psychologists had the tools and the skills to apply a formula that could tell me what I was about underneath it all was revelatory. It suggested that despite my position in this process the people concerned were almost preordained to succeed or fail regardless of what I did. Fate notwithstanding, the tougher I made the interview the greater were the candidates’ chances of success.
I sometimes wonder if I was tough enough. The psychologists were always entertained when either candidate or actor stormed out but I was above kicking off for the sake of entertaining the watchers. Some of the other lads were unremittingly harsh with the candidates, regardless of how the candidate behaved but that approach wasn’t my style. I never walked out and only lost it once when one of the candidates said, “Well basically you’re a prick.” His leg was in plaster and I can only guess that some of his real life employees had kicked the shit out of him.
The scenario presents three points of conflict: the new mentor, the lack of a raise, and the refusal of the MA. Some of the early candidates didn’t handle these at all well but the later ones did. I ended up learning a lot about management.
The actor I worked with most during the Robert Blair years was called Peter Crouch, a large, gentle young man with long hair that got thinner the longer I knew him and who, like me, was a science-fiction obsessive.
We worked in various locations and one day found ourselves in a London office, waiting to go in. I don’t remember where in London it was. I didn’t live here then and to me it was all LONDON, with the names as abstract and magical as those on a Monopoly board.
The office was one of those adaptable places where you rent by the square metre and can put up and take down screens to create spaces of different sizes. We were sitting near one of these screens, which did not cut out sound. From the other side of it we could hear laughter from a meeting, then silence. Occasionally there would be laughter again and then it stopped.
This situation struck Peter and me as odd, poised as we were between waiting and activity, in yet another transient location, this one visibly temporary, waiting to pretend to be someone we weren’t, the tension between who we were and the character we played ever greater as we proceeded through our twenties and Robert stayed forever twenty-one, still waiting for that interview, that raise, that never-to-be awarded business MA.
“Something’s going to happen now,” said Peter.
I knew he didn’t mean that we were going to go in. He meant something else, in some entirely imaginative realm.
“Yes,” I said.
“What is it?” he said.
“A man is going to come in here and shoot one of us,” I said.
I’m not sure why I said that. It seemed right dramatically even though, of course, no mysterious gunman did appear. However, in my mind this imagined reality became fixed. There were two reasons for this certainty.
One was that these were the early years of Quentin Tarantino, who was one of us making films for us, all of them violent and witty, in which men did walk into rooms and shoot people. The second was my guilt at the job we had done, as if I somehow deserved to be shot, even though it wasn’t actually all that bad and nothing compared to, say, decimating a whole economy.
The idea, such as it was, stayed in the dark and pulsed occasionally like a new life form …