We Won’t Know Where We’re Going Till We’re There

This is the slightly odd title of one of my Bertie Ramsbottom business poems included in my 1994 anthology ‘The Poetry of Business Life’. It was heavily influenced by the curious behaviours I’d become all-too-familiar with both as a senior manager and – later – analyst of the fast globalising and politically obtrusive corporate world.

The Times they are a-Changing
   But not the old taboos
On asking where they’re going,
   Or what it’s for, and whose?

From “We Won’t Know Where We’re Going Till We’re There”
Bertie Ramsbottom © Ralph Windle 1994

Still, I suppose I was pleased, as well as surprised, to be asked by Mark Tully – long term BBC broadcaster and its India Bureau chief; but, by that time, presenter of its ‘Something Understood’ Radio and World Service series – to include a reading of it in his October 9, 2011 broadcast.

Since my piece rehearses a whole sequence of supposed steps-to-success systematically churned out (and at breath-taking cost) by the coteries of ‘consultants’, ‘experts’, ‘innovators’ and Alan Sugar wannabees who infest the business scene – I was initially a little taken aback that the Mark Tully series was so unambiguously religious in tone; and this particular programme would go out under the title “Walking Backwards to God”!

I could, however, (I told myself) share an agnostic’s empathy with the words of Cardinal Newman, chosen by Tully to set the tone for the collection of readings, poetry and music to follow.

“We advance to the truth by experience of error; we succeed through failures – we walk to heaven backwards!”

And I was much reassured to be in the company of readings from poets James Fenton and Robbie Burns; and music from Frank Loesser, Shirley Maclaine and The Choir of Kings College, Cambridge.

My poem goes on:-

We’ve been M.B.O.’d and Down-Sized,
   We’ve been T.Q.M.’d, Divested;
Process-Cost- Re-Engineered,
   Restructured, Dis-invested.
Kept up with all the ‘ologies’.
   Each ‘Go-for-Change‘ idea:
Read every trendy guru’s book
   And Business Panacea;
Consorted with Consultants,
   Bought their ‘this should fix it‘ isms,
Gone round and round the circuits
   Of computing cataclysms.

The Times they are a-Changing,
   But not the old taboos
On asking where they’re going,
   And who will get to choose.


And, listening to the programme going out live on the airwaves, I was again reminded of something which has been a constant sensation from my earliest experience of this globalising corporate scene – its progressive adoption of a quasi-religious, ideological ‘belief’ model to evangelise its highly questionable theology of ‘free markets’, as these have become the dominant Icons of the Neoliberal Faith – not only in economic, but also in political and social policy decisions.

This belief system, having spread its ‘Free Market’ orthodoxies from the USA, via the UK to much of the Western World since 1989, was until recently assumed to be the likely all-conquering Credo for conversion of the rest of an aspirant world; though, following the resurgence of Thirties-style financial crises, unscheduled heresies began to reappear. Michael Sandel had called the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008 “a heady time of market faith and deregulation – the Era of Market Triumphalism… but today that faith may be in doubt”.

It would be premature to count on it yet! For well over a century, the Free Market Church, learning from its more durable mediaeval predecessors, has buttressed itself with the underpinnings of inequality, progressive penetration of political processes and policy formation; and the massive expansion of its evangelical priesthood – by the globalising spread of its ‘Business School’ seminaries, operating largely outside the control of national educational policies and salary constraints. The mutual interpenetrations of corporate and politico/governmental elites – the so-called Revolving Door – remains the most cogent threat to open democracies and the urgent need to tackle the corrosive impacts of widening inequalities of income, opportunity and social fairness in our societies.

The message is, just move it round
   Like Alice’s Mad Hatter,
Back or forward, where it’s bound,
   Is quite another matter.
Shake it up and slim it down
   Is mainly what enthuses;
Don’t spoil the fun by asking which
   People are the losers.

So keep the gimmicks coming, Lord,
   To keep us all from needing
Such obsolescent, antique things
   As caring, thinking, leading.


(On the analogy of the sage who asked ‘why should the devil have all the best tunes?‘ you will have noticed that Bertie Ramsbottom’s secularity doesn’t preclude the judicious use of prayer!)

Quotes taken from ‘We Won’t Know Where We’re Going Till We’re There’ – Bertie Ramsbottom © Ralph Windle 1994

‘The Poetry of Business Life’, an Anthology, Ralph Windle, Canto VIII, Technology and Change. pub. Berrett-Koehler USA