how we met: Martin Sorrell; &; Simon Schama

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The Independent Culture
Martin Sorrell, 54, is group chief executive of WPP, one of the world's largest advertising companies. Educated at Cambridge and Harvard Business School, he was group finance director of Saatchi & Saatchi for nine years, before founding WPP in 1986. Married with three sons, he lives in London

Simon Schama, 54, historian, is University professor in art history and history at Columbia University, New York. Educated at Cambridge, his books include `Citizens', `Landscape and Memory' and the recently- published biography, `Rembrandt's Eyes'. Married with a son and a daughter, he lives in New York

MARTIN SORRELL: Simon and I were born a day apart: 13 February 1945 for him, 14 February for me. We both grew up in north London and met at Haberdashers' Aske's School when we were 11. I was a weekly border and Simon was a day boy, and I really got to know him from 13 onwards, when we were streamed, and by an amazing accident I was in the `A' form along with Simon.

Even at 13, he was already a brilliant historian. I remember our history master giving me a superb essay Simon had written on George III. He was very articulate from an early age and we'd enter debating competitions together. We didn't do everything together, though. Simon wasn't really a sportsman like I was, although he played tennis, with a very strange serve.

In 1963, we went up to Christ's College, Cambridge, together. I read economics and Simon read history. We lived on opposite sides of the same courtyard, in blocks which looked like part of Alcatraz. We were among the first Jewish boys to be excused dining with the rest of the students in formal halls every night so that we could keep kosher, and as a result we used to cook our meals together. Once Simon allowed a gas ring to burn through the saucepan he'd left on it, almost causing a fire.

In 1964 we went to the Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City. Simon was there as a reporter for Varsity and I was reporting for New Cambridge, another student newspaper. We moved from the Democratic platform hearings in Washington to the convention, and somehow managed to get in every day with press passes that were valid for Washington but had no validity whatsoever for the convention. That whole trip was a tremendous experience, giving us a real understanding of US politics. We always had a hoot together.

The following summer we toured East and West Berlin, Prague, Budapest and Vienna, including a visit to what had been the Nazi deportation camp at Theresienstadt, outside Prague. We saw the extraordinary drawings done by the children who'd been held there, and the railway line which had carried the Jews to the death camps. Those sorts of experiences at that age create a strong bond.

My father ran J&M Stone, a radio and electrical company which was the Dixons of the Fifties and Sixties, and from my teens I wanted to follow him into business. It was equally clear that Simon was going to be a historian. To my mind Simon is a modern AJP Taylor. I just wish he could keep his arms from waving like a windmill when he's on television. We didn't have a "Person Most Likely To Succeed" award at school, but it was a fair bet that Simon would do very well. He's a sort of Renaissance man - nothing he does surprises me.

SIMON SCHAMA: My first impressions of Martin came from seeing him at Jewish prayers at Haberdashers', and around the school generally. He was small, amazingly dynamic and fantastically nice. I liked him very much and wanted us to be pals, but we weren't really close until our third or fourth year.

He was a demon batsman and getting him out was like breaking the siege of Stalingrad; his determination at the crease was amazing and he whacked the ball, too. He eventually became a prefect and ran things with his characteristic mixture of force and fantastic efficiency.

Martin worshipped his father, Jack, and is very much a chip off the old block. My dad was a textile merchant, but was nothing like as successful a businessman as Jack. When I went to Martin's house I was conscious of how much bigger and more solid it was than ours.

When we went up to Christ's, Cambridge, weused to eat together - I remember kosher care-packages from our respective parents, but especially Martin's mum, would arrive on Friday nights. There would be something vaguely steaming under silver foil.

Our trip to America in 1964 was amazing, and we toured Europe in 1965. I remember staying in an awful youth hostel in Vienna, where it was forbidden to whistle in the loos. Martin's father was importing electronic components from Hungary, and so we had contacts in Budapest who got us into a posh hotel and also got us tickets for the first night of the opera season.

Martin and I used to get very cross with each other on that European trip. At times, we rowed like an old married couple, and it was too much for Rodney Potts, the student friend we were travelling with. He left us early to go back home to his girlfriend.

Even at Cambridge, Martin always had this urge to get out there and make money, and in the early Sixties that was deeply unfashionable. He never wanted to be anything other than a businessman, partly to be even more successful than his dad. I remember meeting him in London when he was working for Mark McCormack in the Seventies, and it was fantastic to see him so much in his element. I've always been impressed by his tenacity and his ability to take risks.

At one point during the Thatcher recession, when nobody wanted to advertise, Martin was in the process of restructuring WPP. He had huge debts and things were horrendous for him. But he still insisted on keeping up our tradition of him giving me lunch at the Connaught. He seemed very relaxed at that lunch, asking about my family, all the usual conversational stuff, whereas under those circumstances I would have jumped off Tower Bridge. He fought his way through that terrible time, with amazing resilience. He's a gutsy little so-and-so.

He's very unpretentious and often says `I'm the world's most boring man.' He's not, but nor would you ever mistake him for Donald Trump or Rupert Murdoch. He doesn't want to walk around in an aura of `Look at Me'.

If you're in my business or Martin's, then an element of selfishness is needed, both to do your job and for your own self-protection. That all falls away when you become a dad. When your babies are born you realise how un-important the rest of life is - a child beats a book every time. You become involuntarily unselfish. Ultimately, our families are the most important thing for us both.

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