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5 March 2011

I Was There (Or Thereabouts)

Tag(s): History, Networking


It has been a damned serious business- Blucher and I lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice thing- the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life…By God! I don’t think it would have done if I had not been there.”

Duke of Wellington


There is a Woody Allen film in which a character called Zelig, through the use of amazing special effects, appears to have participated in many of the great moments in history. The film Forrest Gump uses the same thesis and Tom Hanks is seen to shake Lyndon B Johnson’s hand after the President has pinned a medal on him. These films play to something in our psychology, the idea that we need to witness major events. The amazing scenes a few years ago to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee confirm this, that by being present, we somehow participate in the major defining events in our lives.

This is a stronger feeling than simply witness; I have seen many major sporting and theatrical events and so feel closer to those events than simply watching them on TV. After all in supporting my team have not I somehow helped them to their victory? We know that the great musician or actor will respond to encouragement from the audience. The idea of being directly involved, or closer to the action, is very powerful and I have felt it on several occasions.

We all remember where we were when we first heard of the death of President Kennedy or John Lennon, or more recently the terrible terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. I was at church when I first heard about the death of John F. Kennedy. I was living in the US when the news came in about Lennon’s murder, driving home after taking some Mars colleagues from Scandinavia out for dinner. I was running a sales conference for NXT when the news came again from New York, but this time about thousands of murders. Four of the attendees were American and all went frantically on their mobile phones to learn more. I quickly brought the conference to an end and went straight home to join the world in watching the events unfold on TV. I learned that I had been closer to this than I really wanted. One of the planes had been an American Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angeles. I had been on a similar flight just three weeks before after seeing my family on a flight home after a holiday in Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. This is as close as we want to get to events like this.

These tragic events seem to be happening all the time but the world’s love-hate relationship with America brings their events to a heightened level. I was also living in the United States as an Exchange student when both Martin Luther King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were shot dead. I was a member of the school Glee Club and in the spring of 1968 we went on a tour to perform at various schools. The last concert was at a girl’s school in Kansas City, Missouri. After the concert we enjoyed a dance with the girls and then the news of King’s murder came in. The dance broke up immediately and we left in our bus. Riots had already broken out all over the southern states. We were just 400 miles away from Memphis, Tennessee where the assassination took place. Our bus was shot at and we were ordered to lie on the floor of the bus. When we got back to our motel we were instructed to go straight to bed and not venture out on our balconies. Next morning we returned to the relative safety of Minneapolis.

A few months later we held our school Prom at a local country club. All of us were on parade in our hired tuxedos and our dates looking their best in ball gowns. Proms go on through the night and so we were all awake when the news came from Los Angeles of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. That killed any sense of celebration and we just sat around talking about the loss of innocence.

In 1980 I started to visit Chile and then the following year I was asked to go there and form a marketing company for the Mars Corporation. This was the era of Pinochet. He had come to power in 1973 in a military and violent coup d’état. Tony Hallett, a senior executive at Pedigree Petfoods where I began my Mars career, told me that my first hiring should be a bodyguard; such was the impression of South America. Actually I felt very safe in Chile. Yes, it was a police state and noone can defend some of the worst atrocities by the Pinochet regime in their first few years of power. But by 1981 it was a very pleasant place to live. Pinochet had just won a further eight years of power in a referendum and would then hand over to a democratically elected president. With tragic irony Tony Hallett was to die a violent death in a car accident in Norfolk.

One of my first hires was an Argentinean sales manager. In the following spring Alberto asked me, “Don David, is there anything in the English papers about Las Malvinas?” He knew I kept up with the British newspapers, I received a weekly Guardian summary and also the Sunday Times, but there was nothing about the Falklands at that time. Apparently the Buenos Aires papers were already writing of an invasion. Of course, the invasion happened and then the task force embarked on its eternal voyage allowing time for Alexander Haig to attempt his shuttle diplomacy. But it also allowed time for Britain’s secret forces to get into position and that was in Chile.

I used to drink in the Sheraton Hotel with a gringo friend and one evening we fell in with some Brits who were very vague about what they were down there for! During the war itself I became very popular with the Chileans, as did all the British expatriates because the Chileans had a longstanding enmity with their neighbours. One night in Viña del Mar I went to a bar with my Chilean Marketing Manager and once it was known I was English I was treated as a hero and the resident folk group played all the English songs they knew.

In September 1984 I began working for Pillsbury based in Hove. A few weeks later I held a planning meeting with my new marketing team at a hotel outside Brighton. That day the IRA attempted to assassinate the British cabinet who were all staying at the Grand Hotel, Brighton for the Conservative Party Conference.

In 1987 I was on the last train out of London before the hurricane that Michael Fish failed to forecast closed down the tunnels between Victoria and Brighton and then later that year I passed through Kings Cross just thirty minutes before the terrible fire.

I was approached to join a group of so-called marketing experts to advise the Prince of Wales. He wanted to demonstrate to his tenant farmers in the Duchy of Cornwall that improved marketing would enhance their operations. He wanted this to help with the balance of payments in food. He wanted to encourage organic farming. And if there was a surplus he wanted this to go to his charities. All of these objectives were met through the successful launch of Duchy Originals. The first products were biscuits, then drinks and now there are a wide variety of excellent products commanding a significant premium. For a number of years I had the pleasure of meeting Prince Charles over lunch or tea at his homes in Highgrove or St James’ Palace or at other royal palaces like Sandringham.

On one occasion we were all invited with partners to a Christmas party at Kensington Palace. Both Charles and Diana used this occasion to thank the many people who had contributed their time to the many causes to which the two gave patronage. That very afternoon the Prime Minister, John Major announced in the House of Commons that Charles and Diana would separate.  We checked. The party was to go on. We turned up and stood in a long receiving line. My wife, Carmen, did her much-practised curtsey. Charles was charming. Diana looked terrible. Later Charles bumped into Carmen and complained that he had not met her earlier. She complained that that was unfair, as she had been practising her curtsey for days.

Diana died in August 1997 and the nation watched the rather strange funeral. Tony Blair gave his appalling impression of an archbishop reading from the bible. Shortly after I hosted a party of Sony dealers at our factory in Alsace and for entertainment after the dinner we had booked Ian Botham and Rory Bremner. Bremner gave a fabulous performance and afterwards over a whisky I asked him why he did not do an impression of Tony Blair. He said, “He’s not funny.” I said I thought he was hilarious and cited the performance at Westminster Abbey. Immediately Bremner did an uncanny imitation of Blair and soon after this was a regular feature in his TV show. Indeed it became almost the only point of effective opposition to Blair.

I had the chance to meet the Prime Minister Blair later that year. I received an invitation to a reception at Number 10. Carmen and I arrived at the same time as the Japanese ambassador, whom I knew well. He asked me, “Pearson-san. What is the purpose of this function?” I had no idea. The Japanese embassy had called the Foreign Office; but the Foreign Office could not enlighten them. Thus the representative of the emperor of our second largest trading partner was invited to the official residence of the head of government and did not know the purpose of the visit.

That evening Blair was detained in the House of Commons as he was in the process of taking away allowances from Single Mums. Cherie therefore received the guests on her own. The attendance was decidedly mixed. There were business leaders and ambassadors. There were celebrities and charity workers. There were people who just looked ill. Chris Smith, the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport came over and asked me if I wanted to buy an Opera House.

Finally the great man arrived and we then found out the purpose of the evening. It was to be photographed with celebrities like Chris Evans and with people in wheel chairs. These photos of course appeared in the tabloids the following day. We had another function to go to and so I went up to the Prime Minister to introduce myself. “Good evening, Prime Minister”, I said. “I am David Pearson, Managing Director of Sony United Kingdom. Thank you for the invitation.” Tony Blair replied “It’s a bit of alright this, isn’t it”. The accent was Estuary and I, for once, was lost for words. Then my wife came up to be introduced and detecting her accent he asked her where she came from. “From Chile,” she replied. “Oh, I’d love to go to South America. I never get to go anywhere interesting. I only get to go to Brussels.” Again I was lost for words and Blair moved on to work the room. Since then he has certainly made up for lost time in visiting parts of the world more interesting than Brussels.

These few cases of involvement in major events are probably just examples of what the mathematicians call “Small World Syndrome”. This is the theory that in just a few links one can connect any individual with any other individual. It is a small world!


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