Rowan Pelling: The best boss I ever had – and the only one to inspire a memorial luncheon

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The Independent Online

Bank holidays can seriously damage your health – or so says one Professor Jean Ferrieres in the BMA journal. Too bloody right they can. Having grown up in a country pub, I always associate bank holidays with queues of ramblers in fluorescent anoraks ordering orange squash and halves of shandy before asking for another lump of ice and some change for the phone, while the people behind them hyperventilate with bar-rage and prepare to deck someone.

In severe cases, bank holidays can prove fatal. It is six years almost to the day since my old boss, Michael Vermeulen – then editor of GQ magazine – died over the long August weekend. The coroner may have put his death down to pharmaceutical misadventure, but we all knew that it was the bank holiday that did for him. Michael loathed (in ascending order): weekends, vacations and bank holidays. They all meant enforced absences from the office and a dearth of the urban bustle he thrived on. He just about survived weekends, what with the Saturday morning recce to the office, and the Groucho Club being open that evening, which left only Sunday to get through.

But bank holidays stumped him: the office was locked, the Groucho was closed and there was this hideous extra day gaping before him. As a native of Chicago, he never really got the British passion for crawling down gridlocked motorways to eat sandwiches on desolate stretches of shingle. Mindless substance abuse probably seemed marginally more appealing.

No one could have predicted how impossible the huge, Vermeulen-shaped hole that he left in our lives would prove to fill. Perhaps his fuel-injected Mr Motivator act obscured the fine insights and crippling self-doubt that also formed his character, made it hard to gauge the tendrils of affection that linked him to his staff. It was extraordinary that his absence should prove more deafening than his presence (he greeted uninspiring stories with the clarion cry: "Doesn't blow the wind up my skirt"). I have never known anyone so fiercely and widely mourned by colleagues as Michael was – and is. No one else who inspires an annual luncheon. Former GQ staffers gather on the Tuesday following the bank holiday to toast his magnificent, abbreviated life. This year's venue is a former kebab house off Bond Street, where he once conducted Master/Grasshopper pep-talks. Over a three-bottle lunch with brandy chasers your failings would be identified and your virtues hugely magnified. Male employees who shone became "big swinging dicks around town". He loved to promote from the ranks, on one memorable occasion anointing the office's most ramshackle man as style editor.

My working association with Michael was lamentably brief. I was his PA for six months before he fired me for being useless and for sleeping with the deputy editor (reader, I married him). Despite these minor hitches, we got on famously. He gave me a fabulous seashell when I left, and my brief period under his wing was a steep learning curve from which I never fully recovered.

I learnt that one man's expense bill could top £40,000 per annum. I learnt there were only two lifestyle choices for men nowadays, "playboy or drone". I learnt that Friday drinks are vital for office harmony. I learnt to draw my staff aside, one by one, to say, "You're my secret weapon – the only one I can rely on". I learnt not to stand behind my secretary as she types, going "tick-tock goes the clock". I learnt that you can send identical bunches of flowers to three different women on Valentine's Day and get away with it. I learnt not to give the office fax number to my travel agent if going away for a secret tryst with the magazine's sex columnist. I learnt never to have naked photos of oneself sent to the office, even if they do chart the uncertain progress of your rapid weight-loss programme. I learnt that discretion was utterly essential in a personal assistant. I learnt that one inspirational boss can change your life for ever.

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