The baby I could take, the MBA I cannot forgive

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The Independent Culture
THE LIFE of Riley, you'd have said. Rich, posh Italian husband, elegant Paris apartment, new-ish baby daughter obviously destined to be a tremendous femme fatale, circle of interesting and well-to-do Eurochums, posh flat in Marble Arch, seat on the board, on it goes. Once a week, down to the Gare du Nord in the freshly washed Paris morning, Eurostar to London, transact business, catch up with other circle of slightly raffish, rackety London chums, then back to Paris the following day.

"Wonderful life," I said.

"Giving it up," she said. "The job. This commuting to London: I can't do it any more. I want to be in Paris. With the bambina."

"So you're going to be a, what's the Italian for housewife?" I said.

"Not as such," she said. "I'm going to do an MBA."

So she's not my friend any more. That's that. MBA? To think I remember her as a happy little peanut of, oh, 22 or something, rose-petal skin, shiny hair, musky voice, something to look forward to during my Summer of Shouting and Weeping (1989; I am surprised you don't remember) as I writhed hysterically about my Provencal floor like a gut-shot phoenicopter.

The being married I could take. Even the being married to an Italian banker with a fondness for dangerous sports. The baby I could take; women do that, sometimes: have babies. It's a sort of instinct, I suppose, so it would be churlish to despise them for it. I could even take the posh apartment, the smart sophisticated friends, the cosmopolitan grown-upness of it all; people change and you can't expect them to stay happy little peanuts for ever.

But the MBA? No; the MBA I cannot forgive. We know about MBAs. They are the work of ageless evil, the devil's spawn, a foul mephitic swamp oozing toxic vapours to corrupt and defile all that is good and noble. People who do MBAs go to pieces. They sit in horrid little rooms and learn to speak a hateful and nonsensical language which prevents them ever thinking either sensibly or sensitively again. They do sums all day long, to encourage them in the belief that the business of life is business, and that life can thereby be reduced to numbers. They dress horribly, in that slick, preternaturally neat fashion which is intended to convey an image of success. They become obsessed with spreadsheets and repassage, wear unsuitable eau de toilette, grade their friends by usefulness, and when you ask them if they're hungry, they look at their watch.

I was one, once. I wasn't actually an MBA, but I read all the books, and I had the spread- sheet program and the vocabulary and the management-consultant bullshit; I had the just-too-pale-a-shade-of-grey suit, and the wafer-thin slip-on shoes, and the Rolex and the BMW and the gold American Express card, and I contributed absolutely nothing to the world's peace or happiness and nor did I care. The thing was all about money; so I hung around with venture capitalists and MBAs and Senior Strategy Executives and Marketing Directors and a raft of inexplicable people, all engaged in flannelling each other, and most of whom knew nothing at all about anything.

Did we care? Did we buggery. Because it was not only about money; we also got the money. I have never, before or since, got so much money for doing so little. All you had to do was trot out some fiction - no, not fiction but poetry, pure word-music and subtle implication - and back came a cheque. Everyone was telling lies to everyone else, everyone was making it up; initially there was some slight unease that, further up the command chain, there would be someone who would say "Hang on; this is bollocks"; but it never happened. All the way up to the top the conspiracy of ignorance prevailed, and the money kept coming in.

It was, at first, fun. Not so much the money itself, but the sense that one had things under control. Life in the MBA lane offered certainties: Modified Internal Rates of Return, gross margin percentages, integrated cashflow-path monitoring, sensitivity analysis, not just numbers but a whole axiomatic system into which one could retreat from the messy world of words and ideas and people and feelings. I began to inhabit this world, rising early, shaving close to the bone, choosing "crisp" shirts, arranging meetings, spending hours and hours in front of my computer doing MBA-style things instead of any actual work. And it was lovely. I wrote myself little "position papers" analysing my strategic plans and investigating the underlying philosophical structure of my enterprise with reference to Kant and Popper and Class II/b enhanced service protocols, in blissful and self-imposed ignorance of the fact that I wasn't actually producing anything to sell, and that even if I had been, there wasn't anyone who'd want to buy it.

Eventually the bank put me straight. They called me in one day and said "We'd like our money back, you see" and I responded with a torrent of statistics and projections and jargon and balls, and they said, in the rough, simple, bankerly way "Yes, but we lent you a lot of money and you haven't paid it back, and we'd like you to, now," and that was that. They were terribly nice but as they ushered me courteously out of the door I could hear, behind me, a sort of ghostly pop and gurgle, as of a plug being pulled and my substance trickling down the drain.

It was a narrow escape, and I vowed never to do it again, but I could see how you can get caught up in it and end up adrift on a clotted gamboge sea of bubbling drivel while the world drifts by outside in its ignorant, inefficient, unmanaged way.

It won't do. What we need is a school - an old Napoleonic fort, perhaps, or an elegant country house fallen into desuetude - where people like my friend could come to be deprogrammed and disabused. There's a bob or two in that, wouldn't you say? I'll draw up a business plan, do a few spreadsheets, raise the funding. It's a great idea. Really. Let's do lunch sometime and I'll tell you about the P/E projections ... !