Blog: Dave LeggettOff to Forbes House

Dave Leggett | 2 March 2004

I'm going to Belgravia, central London, tomorrow for meetings at the SMMT (the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, that is). I'll be going up to the second floor of that rather splendid building where the SMMT lives (it is called Forbes House), for a chat with the International Trade Department’s people. I used to work at the SMMT back in the late 1980s, so it is always a particular pleasure for me to return and see who's left from the old days as well as say hello to more recent arrivals.

The international trade guys are particularly useful contacts for me, especially on emerging markets and there’s generally a lot of knowledge and data inside a trade association such as SMMT – much more than many people realise. And they’re good customers of just-auto, so it’s good to hear feedback from them also.

Anyway, here's a story from my days as an SMMT staffer that I was recounting on the telephone the other day and it may interest a few readers of this blog.

One of my jobs back then as a young economist in the SMMT's Economics Department was to prepare a background document for the then SMMT-JAMA 'gentlemen's understanding' talks - by which the Japanese import makes were closely monitored on their UK market share with bilateral talks taking place every six months or so to iron out any 'problems' (towards the end the whole thing was getting close to attracting the unwanted attention of competition authorities). The figure 11% sticks in my mind as being a significant share threshold to which the Japanese were being encouraged to stick to - on BU imports, anyway. They largely played the game and meticulous, almost ritualistic, diplomatic niceties were observed on both sides.

A big part of that mammoth background document was data appendices - tables prepared in Lotus 123 (remember that? everyone used it before Excel came along) - share of UK new registrations by Japanese marque, by market segment and so on. Data was crunched by yours truly to the nth degree. The key thing was to have the very latest sales data, which meant I had to race against time, when the latest month-end numbers were in, to get the data tables prepared for the Big Wigs. There were a lot of tables and there was a lot of cross checking and double-checking I seem to remember.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, towards the deadline I'd be working well into the night on this stuff. It would get dark. I was on my own bar the caretaker downstairs. Forbes House was - and is - an old building. Floorboards creaked, opened sash windows let in the wind and strange noises like distant doors shutting were a constant accompaniment to my keyboard tapping. Not that it bothered me. Until…

I recall that on one such occasion, I was working late - it was around 10:00pm - and I was all alone on the second floor of Forbes House. It was a hot summer evening; I was sweating, stressed out and tired. But I was hard at it, making good progress in populating those data cells. Quite suddenly, I could hear strange mumbling coming down the darkened corridor outside the office. It was getting nearer and sounded odd, like speech that was out of context. What could it be? I put the yellow NR3 report - with its endless rows of model variant sales numbers - down and stopped looking at the IBM PC’s monochrome screen. The mumbling got louder – it was a foreign language of some sort. And then…

I nearly fell off my chair when a formally robed priest walked in waving incense, spraying water and repeating something in Latin. Impressive sight, like a scene from The Exorcist. He didn’t acknowledge me at all, which was slightly unnerving. I was probably mouthing ‘hi’ and smiling awkwardly. The pungent smell of incense was a real sensory overload moment for my nose also. I was even getting a mild adrenalin rush - the sort you get when something really unexpected and confusing happens - and my mind was well and truly off those Japanese share numbers now!

The caretaker gingerly followed the priest into the office where I was working and whispered that there was indeed an exorcism taking place and would I mind keeping it to myself as we didn't want the staff alarmed!

And then they were gone, into the pitch black dark of the long corridor, leaving me on my own with my data and the building’s creaking noises – to which my ears were now acutely attuned. What was that? I didn’t stick around for much longer that evening.

Haunted house - sorry, I mean, Forbes House


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