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Five words and why I never worked for Maxwell

WHEN I presented myself at the London offices of Robert Maxwell, I was told that he wanted me to introduce myself to an American employee of his, Matthew Wilkes.

Wilkes greeted me nervously, spent 20 minutes describing the marvellously enticing jobs he could make available in finance, marketing, or programming, then told me what a wonderful man Robert Maxwell was. 'He's a genius,' Wilkes said. 'You'd love working for him. I do.' All this struck me as peculiar. I was the one who needed a job, but Wilkes was the one doing the selling. Maxwell, I began to suspect, must have told Wilkes to hire me no matter what.

Forty minutes into Wilkes's pitch, the windows in his office began to tremble with a deafening whup whup whup. 'Helicopter's landing,' Wilkes shouted. 'We'll give him five minutes, then go up and meet the great man.'

When Wilkes and I got off the elevator on the top floor we found ourselves in a vast hallway with huge chandeliers. On one wall hung the Maxwell logo, a gigantic M superimposed on a map of the world. Two secretaries sat outside a tall door. One looked at Wilkes and nodded curtly. 'He's waiting for you.'

Robert Maxwell was seated at a massive desk, a good 40 feet away. He stood, strode to a conference table, then gestured us to join him. He looked over six feet tall and must have weighed 300 pounds. His hair and eyebrows were jet black - too black, clearly dyed - and he wore a suit and shirt of electric blue with a bow tie of hot pink. My first impression was of a circus bear.

'Mr Robinson,' Maxwell rumbled. He took my hand in his paw and gave it a pump. 'Take a seat.'

'Well?' he asked Wilkes. 'What are we to do with this young man?'

Wilkes seemed to swallow hard. 'Peter and I have talked about his career interests at great length (this was untrue) and we've decided Peter would be happiest working for me in electronic media.' Wilkes discussed the need he'd felt for someone just like me to help him with the finances and marketing of Maxwell's TV properties in Europe. 'I could keep a close eye on Peter and help him learn the business quickly. After a year or two we could give him a piece of business to run on his own.'

Maxwell brooded for a moment. 'No,' he said at last. 'Quite wrong. That would be the wrong use to make of Mr Robinson entirely.' He then laid down the correct use to make of Mr Robinson.

'Mr Robinson will act as my personal assistant. He will sit with me at the negotiating table. This weekend, for example, when I fly to Moscow, you will come with me. But once Mr Robinson joins us, he will make such trips instead. He will report back to you on the decisions that have been taken and on the actions you and others in this organisation will need to effect as a result. After six or eight months I will know Mr Robinson well enough to decide what use to make of him next.

Wilkes had turned pale.

'Your assistant?' Wilkes asked. 'But Peter doesn't know the business yet . . .'

Maxwell waved his hand. 'I have decided,' he said. 'You need only find out whether Mr Robinson accepts my offer. If he does, negotiate a salary and starting date. If he does not . . .' Maxwell produced another dismissive wave of his hand.

A secretary put her head in the door. 'Ariel Sharon on the line.'

'That is all,' Maxwell told Wilkes, striding back to his desk to speak to the Israeli minister. I had not uttered a word.

Wilkes shut the giant door behind us, took me a few paces down the hall, out of the secretaries' hearing, then looked me directly in the eyes and said, 'You don't want this job.' He was clearly serious. For reasons I did not understand, Robert Maxwell had flown me from California to London, spoken precisely five words to me ('Mr Robinson. Take a seat.'), then used me to belittle one of his managers. It must have been bad enough for Wilkes to have been told to hire me. Now Maxwell had told Wilkes, in effect, that Wilkes would report to me.

Wilkes took me back to his office and sat behind his desk, bending and unbending a paper clip, while he took back everything he had told me about Robert Maxwell just an hour before. Maxwell threw tantrums. He was cruel to his subordinates. 'Why don't you just tell me right now that you don't want this job?' Wilkes said.

I told him I'd think it over. But as I left I felt no more inclination to go to work for Robert Maxwell than to indenture myself to Jabba the Hut.

(Photograph omitted)