Inspired by the following Decamot items: drainpipe, bureau, abacus, frogman, mosque, Zephyr, blinkers, Wessex, couscous, judge
Steven Jones parked his vintage E-Type Jaguar in Duchess Street just behind Broadcasting House off Portland Place. He had reluctantly accepted an invitation to be a guest of Libby Purvis on her final BBC Radio 4 Mid-Week chat show. It was due to be broadcast live at 9.00 am.
Jones glanced at his watch. It was 7.30.
“If you can’t be on time – be early!” he thought to himself, smiling at a mantra drummed into him from his school days. He glanced down at some notes he had typed up in an idle moment. By memorising a phrase or two he thought he could “rehearse his ad libs” to quote another of his mentors, when it came to his turn.
“From 1950 to 1972 the Ford Zephyr was the entry level for any aspirational young businessman, especially one who had something to prove. It was Ford’s largest saloon with two possible upgrades – the Zodiac and the Executive. The 1962 Mk3 6-cylinder version represented the ultimate badge of achievement for working class lads, before they migrated to Rover 2000s, Mercs, Jaguars or, finally, Rollers when they simultaneously cast off their drainpipe trousers in favour of smart John Collier suits and made the transition from Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry to Eric Clapton via BB King, before leaving all behind in favour of classical music.”
The other two guests were known to him by reputation only. He had never met either of them.
Rita Barbo was a middle-aged feminist writer turned stand up comedienne with a reputation for barbed invective on any subject but solidly anti-establishment and very pro the LBGT community; “whatever that is” thought Jones.
The other guest was a former winner of Master Chef whose original popularity had taken the producers by surprise.
Martha Montgomery had done things with calves’ livers that were thought impossible in culinary circles. Five years on, she was promoting her latest book “From Calves’ livers to Couscous – A Journey”
It was already being hailed as a clarion call for lapsed vegans.
The reception area of Broadcasting House was a busy thoroughfare as BBC staff and guests jostled for attention. Steven Jones announced himself to an official with a grubby looking identity badge hanging from his neck who muttered something into an internal telephone before indicating that Jones should sit over by the window near the entrance where there were a few well-worn chairs with thread bare seats and a magazine laden coffee table.
“Someone from the programme will be down to get you shortly” he announced.
Rita Barbo was already seated as Steve Jones approached but he was taken aback by his fellow guest’s opening greeting. “Hi moneybags! I thought Libby would have at least one filthy capitalist on the show. Welcome to Aunty’ s Emporium! Those prompt cards!” She said, grabbing Steve’s carefully typed notes and pretending to speed read them. “You won’t need them” she added screwing them up and throwing them out of the open window.
Martha Montgomery looked on a little embarrassed but was saved by a timely intervention by the professional PR lady supplied for the purpose by her publisher …
“Now, Martha my darling, have you got the official book launch date and venue at your fingertips? Good! And the name of your publisher? Excellent! It may seem obvious, but you would be surprised what happens to even the most experienced performer when the red light switches on. You won’t get a second chance to make a first impression. I know its only radio but keep smiling when you are answering questions. Always remember, listeners to Radio 4 Midweek are very much your friends, your target market.”
“If I hear another cliché I think I will be sick” thought Steven Jones as they walked up to the second floor led by Libby Purvis’ producer who had introduced herself as Sarah Lee. The host of the show was gracious in her greeting as she led them into the studio.
“Please be seated … Martha, if you would like to be on my left, then Rita then Steven. I will talk to you all in that order but do feel free to comment at any time if you feel you can contribute something relevant.”
Being a round table, Steven Jones found Libby on his left and Rita on his right with Martha almost directly opposite surrounded by notes.
“We will be on air in 30 seconds” announced Libby confidently “I will start by asking you all in turn to give me an example of a journey you have been on recently”
“Whoopee!” thought Steven Jones to himself “I’m ready with the transition from rock ‘roll to Mozart”
The red light over the window into the sound desk where two technicians were twiddling knobs glowed red, indicating they were live as the continuity announcer’s voice came over loud and clear.
“And now, for the last in the present series, let’s transfer to the Mid-Week studio and Libby Purvis …
“Where I am joined today by three very different guests, a former Master Chef winner with a change of direction, a self-confessed feminist writer making a name for herself in stand-up comedy and a successful businessman who is launching a new venture …. Before I talk to each individually, perhaps I could ask each of my guests to give us an example of a transition they may have made in their lifetime to date … so, Martha Montgomery, in a sentence or two, let’s start with you …
“Somehow” replied Martha confidently, reading from her PR notes. “I went from housewife to television presenter without having been trained for either!”
“A good answer” said Libby … “and you Rita Barbo, any unlikely journeys for you?”
“When my Dad introduced me to Mozart, I made the transition from Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry to Eric Clapton via BB King, before leaving all behind in favour of classical music.”
Steven Jones could not believe his ears as a bead of perspiration appeared on his forehead.
“And you Steven Jones, what’s your take on all this?”
“A DNA test with my brother a few years ago confirmed that my father’s identity is unknown which meant, given the conventions of the time, society regarded me as a bastard. When making the transition this very morning from ground floor reception to this studio, I realised that the dictionary definition of a bastard needs redefining to fully encompass the LGBT community”
Libby laughed out loud. “Very enigmatic, Steven, of which more later, perhaps!” she said whilst observing an impromptu exchange of hand signals twixt two of her guests.
Rita Barbo and Steven Jones now focussed on what they wanted to say when it was their turn to be interviewed, to the point when neither of them heard a word of Martha Montgomery’s PR prompted story of how she had found Buddhism which was the trigger for her whole new approach to cooking.
At this point, Libby had expected a contribution from Rita suggesting, perhaps, that Martha had only seen the light when sales of her first book started declining. Her producer had relied on Rita being the grit in the oyster of her programme. In stead Martha droned on uninterrupted.
Rita Barbo was determined to save her best barbs for the guest on her left who was clearly a filthy capitalist with nothing to offer the world by way of compassion or hope; it was time to expose him as a jumped-up working-class nonentity posing as middle class who needed pegging back. Her father had been made redundant many years ago by John Collier where he was a manager. Shortly after that John Collier went out of business altogether. Her father had hit the bottle and died through alcohol abuse. People like Steven Jones were to blame. Now, to prevent a repeat of such tragedies, all high street shops should be put into public ownership immediately.
Libby could see Rita struggling with a handkerchief held to her forehead. She had poured herself a glass of water which she was sipping, her face a pale shade of light grey. Libby, slightly perplexed, waved her hand to indicate she would interview Steven next.
“So, Steven Jones, entrepreneur and classic car enthusiast, tell us about ABACUS your latest hedge fund. What gave you the idea and why is it different from all of the other investment vehicles competing for our spare cash?”
Steven Jones relaxed a little but kept a wary eye on Rita Barbo who was being given some initial first aid by the show’s producer less than 3 ft from him. His semi rehearsed original spiel was now well and truly redundant, so he grabbed the opportunity to hold court with a story he had been telling for years at sales conferences.
“Ah, great question Libby” he said “Which I will do my very best to answer a succinctly as I can. I have always been impressed with the ability of the Chinese to make maximum use of an abacus. As your listeners will know, in a skilled operator’s hands, it is the equivalent of an electronic calculator but invented in the second century BC!
I was once pitching for a multimillion-pound contract to a high-powered American who was running an electronics business in Hong Kong. They were actually a branch of a German company but 95% of their employees, including their senior management, were local Chinese. He had a solid gold presentational abacus mounted on a plinth on his desk. It had been presented to him by the workers the first year they exceeded their sales targets. They were showing him respect for having helped them achieve their financial objectives, but the silly man missed the point. I told him the beads on the abacus had been fixed to display a number.
“What number he said?”
“2,750, 425” I replied.
“Wow” interjected Martha Montgomery suddenly “What happened next?”
She was genuinely hooked on Steven’s story line but was secretly hoping she might find a link with Buddhism.
“Well, the American knew he had lost face, needed to regain their respect and ended up buying one of my financial products which was for the benefit of all the workers, the details of which are unimportant, but you can see why I have a soft spot for the abacus and why I used it for my latest hedge fund which is all about investing in Chinese companies who trade with the UK”
“Bet you made a fortune on the deal you filthy capitalist!” yelled Rita Barbo suddenly, now slowly sliding between her chair, the edge of the table and the floor of the studio. “Exploitation of the poor downtrodden masses; victims of a ruthless capitalist British Empire … bloody typical … you should be ashamed of yourself ….
At this point the studio editor rushed in with a paramedic who began mouth to mouth resuscitation in an attempt to revive their controversial guest whilst Libby Purvis calmly addressed her unseen army of loyal listeners …
“This has been my last show but I just have time to thank my three guests today, Martha Montgomery, Rita Barbo and Steven Jones and especially you the listeners for tuning in over the years. You will find full details of my guests today on the BBC website ... just follow the links to the Midweek page.”
Outside the studio there was minor mayhem as medics on their way to help the stricken Rita Barbo collided with the Countess of Wessex who was on her way to be interviewed for Woman’s Hour; the CIA’s London bureau chief who had been called in to talk about security around the Regents Park Mosque, and a former jockey who had developed a revolutionary new lightweight set of blinkers for racehorses.
Steven Jones and Martha Montgomery tip toed their way out of the studio intending to make their way back to reception, when the Midweek producer ushered them along a side corridor and into a small office. She was clearly out of her comfort zone but anxious to stay in control.
“I must apologise for the show – it has never happened like that before” she said “In all my years producing Midweek with Libby we have never encountered anything quite like it.”
“It’s not a problem Sarah” said Steven “Is Rita going to be alright?”
“I don’t know frankly” she said “But her outburst was over the top even by her standards. We always hope guests will provoke lively debate but that was not acceptable; a real shame as it was our last ever show together”
Both Steven Jones and Martha Montgomery reassured her that no offence had been taken and got up to leave when Sarah suddenly remembered something
“Steven! I almost forgot, there is a Chinese gentleman in reception from the Embassy in Portland Place just up the road from here. He called the office when you were speaking on air. I said if he came to reception I would ask you to meet him in reception after the show. I hope that’s OK”
“Not a problem Sarah … you never know it might be a potential investor!”
Twenty minutes later Steven Jones and Li Ping Sun, a senior trade official at the Chinese embassy, were seated at the Langham Hotel opposite the BBC sharing a pot of English Breakfast Tea.
“I should like to make it clear that I am here in a private capacity only” said Li “I would be most grateful if you would keep secret anything that I tell you today”
Steven Jones smiled and laughed nervously “Provided I’m not involved in doing something illegal Mr Li!”
“I don’t think so Mr Jones but you I do need your assurance just the same … OK?”
Steven Jones nodded and invited Li Ping Sun to speak.
“You told a story on the radio about how you were able to read the abacus on the desk of the US managing director of Siemen’s Hong Kong”
“I didn’t say it was Siemen’s” interjected Jones “But you are right, it was Siemen’s. They were taken over by a Chinese owned company the following year and my employee benefit programme was closed down!” He added ruefully.
“I know” replied Li “My father was one of their employees, he was the one who organised the making of the presentational abacus”
“Wow, what a coincidence!” exclaimed Steven Jones. “What more can I say or do for you Mr Li?”
Li Ping Sun was silent for a moment clearly concerned that what he was about to say might get him into trouble with someone … “I’m sorry” he said “But it is difficult for you to understand the situation in China all those years ago, the upheavals that were going on ahead of the handing over of Hong Kong in 1997. For 10 years my father organised the repatriation of assets from China not ever thinking for one moment that China itself would convert from Communism to a market economy in the fullness or time”
Steven Jones listened intently as the picture emerged of Li’s family back in mainland China planning to escape to the West and sending “assets” through to Hong Kong which his father secretly converted to cash and deposited in a secret bank account at the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation. The Chinese authorities had engineered the takeover of the Siemens branch as part of their longer-term strategy but had seen Li’s father as a potential trouble maker and got rid of him.
“My father died shortly after but not before he told us that he had hidden the code number for the account on the abacus. You really could not trust anyone in those days. He really hadn’t expected his American CEO to have returned to the US so promptly taking the abacus with him.”
“So, what can I do to help?” asked Steven sympathetically
“The number you quoted on the programme” said Li “Did you just make it up for effect or was it really what you read off the abacus?”
Steven Jones could not stifle a laugh. “Believe it or not Mr Li, I have told that story so many times over the years, but I have always used that same number – I can’t guarantee that it is correct, but you are welcome to take it. “
Steven Jones wrote the number 2,750, 425 on the back of his business card and handed it over with a smile.
On his journey back to his office in Weybridge, Surrey, he switched on his CD player hoping to lose himself in Mozart’s Serenade Gran Partita, one of his all-time favourite pieces of music. His enjoyment of the slow movement was interrupted by a call on his mobile from his business partner who suggested he switch on the BBC news which he did automatically.
“Rita Barbo, the controversial comedienne who has been a vocal supporter of the LBGT movement, died this morning whilst taking part in edition of Midweek. The cause is unknown but medics at the scene were unable to revive her. Colleagues have been paying tribute on social media. Jo Brand tweeted that Rita will be sorely missed by her fellow performers but how prescient of her to die live on Radio 4, uttering expletives.”
Steven Jones braced himself for the onslaught he was expecting from the popular press but resolved to refuse all interviews and issued a statement via the PR firm that had represented Martha Montgomery.
“I am shocked and saddened to learn of the death of Rita Barbo who I had only just met for the first time this morning. My thoughts go to her immediate family and friends at this very sad time”
By the end of the month, Steven Jones’ special All China abacus Hedge Fund had attracted initial investments of £200 million from professional investors. It included a single payment of £50 million from an old HSBC account still based in Hong Kong.