Obituary: Professor C. Northcote Parkinson
Friday 12 March 1993
ASK ANYONE if they have heard of 'Parkinson's Law' and they will probably answer, 'Yes, but I can't call it to mind.' Tell them that 'Work expands to fill the time available for its completion' and they will laugh and say with feeling that they most certainly have heard of the law, and understand its effects completely. C. Northcote Parkinson coined the phrase which is now known and quoted by frustrated business people (indeed, anyone trying to find 'spare' time) all over the world.
'Granted that work (and especially paper-work),' he wrote, 'is . . . elastic in its demands on time, it is manifest that there need be little or no relationship between the work to be done and the size of the staff to which it may be assigned. A lack of real activity does not, of necessity, result in leisure. A lack of occupation is not necessarily revealed by a manifest idleness. The thing to be done swells in importance and complexity in a direct ratio with the time to be spent.'
Parkinson first presented his formula in a humorous and paradoxical article for the Economist in 1958. This and a further series of essays were published by John Murray as Parkinson's Law in the same year with illustrations by Osbert Lancaster (it remains in print as a Penguin Business 'Management Classic'). He based his law, aimed largely but not only at the workings of bureaucracy, on experience gained in the Second World War with an Officer Cadet Training Unit in the RAF, and as a War Office staff officer.
General recognition of his law, he wrote, 'is shown in the proverbial phrase 'It is the busiest man who has time to spare.' Thus an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half an hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and 20 minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar box in the next street. The total effort that would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety, and toil.'
Most of Cyril Northcote Parkinson's large output as a writer disguises this wonderful sense of humour. As an authority on maritime history, in particular the Napoleonic era, he has a wealth of informative books to his name, including Trade in the Eastern Seas (1937), The Trade Winds (1948), The Rise of the Port of Liverpool (1952), War in the Eastern Seas (1954), as well as an imaginary biography, The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower (1970). As with the Hornblower biography, he used his historical knowledge to write the 'Delancey' saga, naval historical novels about a young midshipman in the Napoleonic wars, and his rise through the ranks eventually to become Admiral of the Fleet.
An unassuming man, Parkinson lived the latter part of his life modestly, if elegantly, in a Canterbury close, continuing to write on the subjects he loved most. His middle years, however, after the phenomenal success of Parkinson's Law, were taken up with lecturing and after-dinner speaking. He found it hugely amusing that he should be so appreciated in this way, and yet his easy manner and witty turn of phrase invited the attention of the most reluctant listener.
His early life was 'rather dull', he thought: educated at St Peter's School, York, he went on to study History at Cambridge. He left to become a historian, and took a further degree in London. After returning to Cambridge to do research, he could see only a dull future. 'There seemed to be nothing ahead but a series of professorships', he said. 'So I began to write books on naval history instead.' His first teaching post - arranged around his writing - was at Blundell's School, Tiverton. He wrote a book about it, attracted particularly by - as he explained - 'the school's most distinguished pupil, Guy Fawkes'. He later lectured in naval history at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, a post he held at the outbreak of the Second World War, and assisted in the formation of the National Maritime Museum.
His service career had begun in the Territorial Army, which he loved passionately, but it seemed to disappoint him that he never took part in active service. With a twinkle in his eye, he recounted that although he would have been a willing to play his part, he seemed to complete the war 'without killing or even seriously annoying any Germans'. He went on to say that the most dangerous episode of his war years was getting married. Then, to add 'insult to injury', his regiment disbanded at the time. 'I think they had a sort of grudge against me.'
He restored and lived for many years at Elham Manor, in Kent, while continuing to write books and lecture on naval and maritime history.
In 1950 he experienced a complete change when he accepted a chair as Raffles Professor of History at the University of Malaya, a post he held for eight years. The end of his time in Malaya came soon after the publication of the book which was to transform his life. With obvious delight he reported what Enoch Powell said of him: 'He's like a man who found an oil-well in his back garden.' The first publisher to which the book was offered returned it promptly. The second, Parkinson said, 'threw it in the wastepaper basket, but later retrieved it and thought again'.
After the success of Parkinson's Law, he entered the world of after-dinner lecturing and continued to be amazed that so many people wanted to hear him speak; he was often asked to give hour- long lectures to audiences of up to 8,000. After Leaving Malaya he held visiting professorships at Harvard University, in 1958, and the universities of Illinois and California in 1959-60. Thereafter he gave up his 'proper job' as an academic to devote his time to writing through the winter and lecturing across the United States in the summer.
It was with relief that he eventually gave up the lecturing circuit to live quietly with his third wife, in Canterbury, having moved there in 1989. Here he relaxed in peace in the shadow of the cathedral, and worked on his final project, his autobiography, A Law Unto Myself.
'The inexorable working of Parkinson's law ensures that appointments have constantly to be made and the question is always how to choose the right candidate . . . Past methods fall into two main categories, the British and the Chinese . . . The British method (old pattern) depended upon an interview in which the candidate had to establish his identity. He would be confronted by elderly gentlemen seated round a mahogany table who would presently ask him his name. Let us suppose that the candidate replied, 'John Seymour'. One of the gentlemen would then say, 'Any relation to the Duke of Somerset?' To this the candidate would say, quite possibly, 'No, sir.' Then another gentleman would say, 'Perhaps you are related, in that case, to the Bshop of Warminster?' If he said 'No, sir' again, a third would ask in despair, 'To whom then are you related?' ' Illustration by Osbert Lancaster for Parkinson's Law
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