Blog: Forbes House, end of an era...
Dave Leggett | 11 October 2010
A potential commission for the Ghostbusters?
The news that the SMMT is moving from its London HQ in Belgravia leaves me with mixed emotions. I can see the business case, naturally, but there's a kind of sense of an 'end of an era'.
Many in the UK's auto industry will have fond memories of attending meetings or functions there. For me there's the added nostalgia derived from the fact that I worked for the SMMT at Forbes House back in the late 1980s. I was in my twenties then, working in the economics department and getting a thorough introduction to the auto industry – not only the UK motor industry, but also the international automotive landscape.
Do I have a Forbes House anecdote to share? One springs to mind. It was a summer evening and I was working late, on the top floor. It was getting dark. I was working on data spreadsheets as part of the preparation for the latest SMMT-JAMA summit on the slightly mysterious sounding 'gentlemen's agreement' that existed between the two auto industry trade bodies.
To digress for a second and give you some background: the 'gentlemen's agreement' between SMMT and JAMA had the tacit approval of the UK and Japanese governments and it limited the Japanese share of the UK car and LCV markets to around 10%. Back then you could get away with things like that; the EEC and European Commission were nothing like as powerful as they are now. The French and Spanish used to unilaterally limit the Japanese to 1% share and Jacques Calvet of PSA could seriously accuse the UK of setting itself up as a Japanese aircraft carrier that would decimate European auto industry jobs. The attitude of Europe towards the Japanese auto industry was sometimes hostile and wary to say the least, but Britain was relatively welcoming and attracting significant investment from Japan. JAMA and MITI were keen not to upset the UK auto industry and to observe the understanding that was the gentlemen's agreement.
Anyway, there I was, going goggle-eyed from looking at a monochrome screen on an IBM PC running Lotus 123 (for those that don't know, think of it as Excel's pre-Windows prehistoric predecessor) and reconciling numbers in printed MVRIS new registrations reports with what was on the screen in one of a multitude of Lotus files.
It was after 9:00pm and I was thinking of calling it a day, perhaps grabbing a beer on the way home. I was, by now, probably the only person in the building bar the caretaker, a friendly Liverpudlian called Ron, who 'lived in' in a flat on the Forbes House site.
The immediate corridor outside the office was dark by now, dusk fading fast.
Out of the blue, I could hear a distant voice, getting louder and approaching down the darkened corridor; the voice was speaking in what sounded like Latin, reciting something. It got louder and was coming my way. I was becoming slightly freaked out. I could not work out what was going on and in a matter of seconds I was going to be confronted with it.
In walked Ron motioning for me to keep quiet. I was on the point of bursting with the simple question: WTF is going on? And then, just behind him, a priest in full ceremonial clobber entered the large open plan office, waving incense and reciting Latin verse. He walked right by me and then back out of the room, fully concentrated on the job in hand, apparently oblivious to my presence.
Before heading off to follow, Ron explained that this was a full exorcism and that it was supposed to have happened without the knowledge of the staff, but I had upset that by working late. Anyway, he asked me to keep quiet about it, so as not to alarm people and said there had been some strange goings on at Forbes House and that was the reason for the exorcism. What strange goings on? He said doors shutting, hearing footsteps, that sort of thing – when the building was definitely empty of people. Ron then left to catch up with the priest and it was dead quiet again, just me and the whirring PC. The corridor outside the office was pitch black by now and I seem to remember that I didn't hang around long after that.
Anyway, there you go, it's a Forbes House anecdote. The Barclay brothers heir who is said to want Forbes House as a London pad (it's a bit on the big side, I'd say) might want to bear that in mind.
I'm starting to get a small idea of the scale of things here in China, but really, I'm only scratching the surface of this vast country....
Given the startling complexity of obtaining a journalist visa for China - the code 'J2' is now indelibly stamped on my mind - it was with some surprise how swiftly I managed to sail through airport im...