Saunders goes soft on Guinness

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It was not the drama we had been led to expect, but Guinness's annual meeting yesterday was an Oscar-winning piece of theatre of the absurd. In the wake of recent agm fiascos at Hanson, British Aerospace and RTZ, the stout-to-Johnnie Walker giant took no chances, with enough security guards for a small state. No one, however, could have prepared it for the contribution of the former chairman, Ernest Saunders.

Having hijacked a Sunday paper as his personal bulletin board a couple of weeks back, Mr Saunders' crusading agenda was clear and Guinness's directors were braced for their record to come under the microscope: "It has been suggested to me that I should attend the meeting and inform myself as to what plans the board has to improve the situation."

No surprise then that when the familiar outsize form sauntered up to a microphone, Financial Times under arm, quite the busy consultant, a frisson of expectation was felt around the Royal Lancaster's packed ballroom. But when his question came you could almost hear the is-he-isn't-he Alzheimers debate begin afresh.

"Why," asked the self-styled shareholder and pensioner "when the World Health Organisation has expressed concern over alcohol, and pressures are rising on drinking and driving, are you continuing to focus on alcoholic drinks only and not considering soft drinks?"

Sorry? This from a man who wanted so much to take over a spirits distiller to expand the poisons on offer at Guinness that he spent a year as a guest of Her Majesty in Ford Open. What was his game, shareholders wondered as the former jailbird departed stage right pursued by hacks?

"I just want to keep abreast of things and find out a little more than I can read in the annual report" said Mr Saunders, a graduate of the Eric Cantona school of clarity. With that he hailed his cab, leaving the meeting to the Association of Irish Pensioners, the Builders and Gardeners of Gargoyle Wharf and Guinness's favourite heckler, Mr O'Hegarty, who was made this year to sound positively compos mentis. Pure genius.