Like an arrow shot from the bow of a god, I had - for 15 years - ascended into the heavens of successful, professional manhood. Without really thinking about it I had been president of the National Union of Students, a researcher, then - in double-quick time - a producer on the cerebral TV current affairs show Weekend World, and finally, in the line of ascent, at 33, the founding editor of a new politics programme for the BBC. It was clear to me - as it seemed to be clear to the world - that I possessed unusual talents. Who knew how golden the future might not be?
And then, before reaching the stratosphere, my little stick faltered, lost momentum and began slowly to sink to earth. I'll spare you the institutional details. A mistake here, a bit of bad luck there, and approaching my 38th birthday I was to be found in a broom cupboard in the BBC's Westminster HQ at Millbank doing a job that no one really wanted done. Despite this, I couldn't get out of it. Worse, my immediate boss didn't like me, and had convinced himself of my uselessness. Word had spread.
So, there I sat, wreathed in the fug of 18 fags a day, alternately playing Nobunaga's Ambition on the office PC, and dealing with the endless bickering about rotas and foreign trips that diverted the BBC's troop of political correspondents from the simple truth that too many of them had too little to do. I was, for the first time in my life, depressed - and this depression was deepening. From unbearably arrogant I had swung dangerously towards embittered, and embitterment is usually a terminal condition.
Naturally, I was horrible at home. Partners and babies are less superficial adjuncts of the real business of a man's life than they once were. The black dog snarled and yapped at those who succoured it. You only really appreciate the scale of a personal crisis like this when it has passed. Nevertheless I understood that something radical had to be done. I needed to regain control of my destiny somehow.
Redemption. Scene 1. A nicotine-stained and fag-ash-strewn study somewhere in Kentish Town. A pathetic-looking man enters, slouching. He opens a drawer in a desk and takes something out. Then, setting his weak jaw in a parody of determination, he grits his yellow teeth, and tears the object - which we now see to be a packet of Silk Cut Extra Longs - in two. It is not the first time that he has done this, the poor weak sap, but it turns out to be the last.
Redemption. Scene 2. I am now to be found in the office of the deputy director general of the BBC, an extraordinary, wedge-shaped Art Nouveau place, set in one half of the second floor of the prow of Broadcasting House. I have asked for this meeting to seek the DDG's advice on what I should do next, and he has agreed to meet me.
For a man under constant criticism, he is relaxed, his smile occupying much of the wide face under those big glasses. Thatcher has gone, and he has probably saved the BBC, and what can he do for me? Now, I know that I must not moan, sound negative or attack my superiors in the organisation. If I do, he'll just think that I'm yet another desperate misfit (which, of course, is exactly what I am) and I'll be doomed to 20 years of sisyphean futility. So I talk about having been in the one job too long, and feeling that my talents might be better deployed ... and, absurdly, feel tears of frustration gather behind my eyes.
If he notices the wobble in my voice, the DDG does not acknowledge it. After having heard me out courteously, he gently prescribes his own patent medicine - a management training course. In his view, there is nothing wrong with most people that a good management training course cannot solve. He's been on several himself, and there are lots of different ones specially adapted for almost every situation. Why don't I call the nice people at management training, and fix myself up? At the very least it may help to clarify my goals. And - he doesn't say - if anyone ever needed their goals clarifying, it's me.
Redemption. Scene 3. The Ivy restaurant. This is where Alan Yentob ate back then, and may still do today. And my long-suffering partner had decided that the Ivy was the place where we would celebrate my birthday. At 8pm we turned up between its posh portals and presented ourselves at the desk.
"What name, madam?" asked a suave, slim, dark young man with - I thought - a supercilious set to his thin mouth. "Powell." The young man screwed up his eyes and searched the short list in front of him. "I am afraid we do not have a Powell," he announced. "But," my partner protested, "you called me earlier today to confirm our reservation!" Suave searched once more. "Ah," he said triumphantly, "but you then cancelled it. You see? We have you down as having phoned in to cancel." Bewildered, my partner tried again. "Look. I didn't call. Why should I? Could you look again?"
Heaving a big sigh, Suave returned to his book. "Yes," he said finally, "I think I see the problem. Some people called Power had a reservation which they cancelled, and your name was crossed off instead. Unfortunately all our tables inside are now taken, but I can offer you a table out here." He pointed at a couple of forlorn, unlaid tables near the entrance. "It's the best we can do."
Up till this moment I had never argued with anyone in a restaurant. I had never sent anything back, or queried a bill, or refused to pay service even for the most tardy and incompetent waitering. But, that night, this is what I said:
"Last week my partner made a reservation at this restaurant, and this afternoon it was confirmed. We have arrived here to discover that you have - in error - cancelled our table. At first you tried to suggest that it was she who had made a preposterous mistake. Only when she insisted, did you check, and discover that it was you who had been at fault. But even then you did not apologise. Far from it. Instead you offer us a windswept exile in the Siberia of your entrance hall, and you do it as though we should be grateful. But we are not grateful. I very much doubt whether you would treat Alan Yentob in this way. Good night." We swept out. And I hadn't felt so good for years. The Ivy's loss became the Spaghetti House's gain.
Aftermath. I haven't tasted a cigarette for five-and-a-half years, and my lungs feel as if they have functioning alveoli again. I have never returned to the Ivy Restaurant, but - should its owners read this - I am prepared to forgive over a free meal and a complimentary bottle of champagne. There will be five of us at table. It's the least I can do for Sarah and the children.
And I went on the training course that November. It was entitled "The Effective Senior Manager" and was held over three days at a country house in Surrey. Four of us, from different organisations, made up a little group in which we discussed our past careers, our high points and low troughs, and talked about our strategies for the future - all interspersed by peculiar topological diagrams on overhead projectors.
As was the plan, this group met again four times in the next year to evaluate its progress, and to offer advice and support to each of its members. There was decent Angus, a former wing commander, now bursar of an Oxbridge college; Jim, a mercurial, brilliant and irritating engineer from British Rail, and Doug, production manager at a Midlands factory making plastic packaging.
At our second meeting one thing became terribly clear to me. We were all failures. Angus was - though he didn't know it - loathed by the old- boy City interests who dominated the college financially. Jim was a hopeless manager. Doug, you just knew, would be sacked within the year. He was too conservative to adapt to developments in packaging.
But it was stolid Doug who suggested that I was trying to climb the wrong greasy pole. "You like talking and performing, you do," he told me. "Perhaps you should try that for a living instead." So I did.Reuse content