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Meeting up with an old friend

Yesterday I had occasion, as a bit-part player, to join a gathering of the military great and good in central London for lunch – for security and other reasons I fear I cannot give many more details than that.

At my advanced age I don’t get out much these days so I guess that readers should take my slightly rose-tinted-spectacles view of proceedings with a healthy pinch of salt, not least because I have always held a pronounced sneaking sense of awe and respect for those who ply – or have plied – their trade in the armed forces for two reasons above all others.

Firstly, because they have made a career choice that (being an out-and-out physical coward) I could never have made and, secondly, because almost every currently-serving or former officer I have ever met has been a practical ‘people person’ who exudes a personal confidence dripping with the impression that he or she is a practical ‘get on with it’ operator eternally capable of meeting all life’s challenges head on.

One ‘take’ upon human existence is that, broadly-speaking, Fate decrees that we all end up occupying the position and status in life that our natural talents, ambition and work ethic (great or small) deserves.

Another is that the cream in any walk of life always rises to the top.

Put those two together with the truism that for the most part ‘people like to hang out with people they feel comfortable with’ and you can soon understand why eminent people from widely-different paths in life naturally gravitate together.

It explains why, if you’re a legal QC, or a captain of industry, or a leading politician, or similar noteworthy figure in any sector, you’re more than happy to consort with say a general, an air vice marshal or an admiral from the military. You’re secure in your own self-confidence because you’ve reached the top in your own field and it’s always potentially rewarding, if not fun in life, to spend time with your equivalents in others. You might even learn something in how they operate in their world that you could subsequently apply to your own with beneficial effect.

I’m not suggesting total uniformity in these observations.

We’ve all met supposedly-impressive ‘top people’ in social situations who disappoint. The charismatic business leader by reputation who – based at least upon our exposure to them – is a pompous narrow-minded bore distinctly lacking in social graces. The senior military man with a mass of medal ribbons across his chest and ‘scrambled egg’ sewn all down the arm of his jacket who, via his conversation, reveals himself to be a worryingly-thick nonentity with the common sense of a gnat.

However, in my experience, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

The truth is that ‘top people’ in most walks of life could and would also have succeeded in any other. The fact that they didn’t – but succeeded in their own – was almost invariably down to the choice of career that they made and the reasons behind it.

Whether those might have included a particular aptitude or skill (e.g. musical or sporting) they possessed, or an inner ‘sense’ that from an early age they were always drawn to a particular career (e.g. medical or religious), or even – as happens for some of us – a period as a young adult of not having a clue which path we wished to pursue but eventually realising that we had to do something, is perhaps of secondary importance.

I feel able to speak freely (and I think objectively) because I never exactly ‘tore up any trees’ in my own career.

By the same token, occasionally I have been amazed if not stunned by the subsequent life/career progress of some I knew at school, university or just socially, as a youngster.

The range is Grand Canyon wide. Some of whom I had expected great things have (comparatively) achieved little or nothing. I’m talking career-wise here – for all I know they may never have been ambitious and instead opted freely for a ‘lesser’ but extremely happy and fulfilling life that never depended upon the acquisition of wealth or prestige.

Meanwhile others with whom I consorted decades ago, and whom at the time those in my peer group unanimously condemned as no-hopers, have gone on to become famous captains of industry, leading experts and/or multi-millionaires.

Funny that.

I reflected upon all these things yesterday as I took bread with upwards of twenty military ‘top brass’, all of whom displayed impeccable manners, courtesy and a relaxed sense of togetherness and fun. For those two brief hours I kidded myself that I belonged in that company – because that is how they were treating me – and fantasised that, in another life, I might so easily have been one of them had my life taken a different course.

All that is total balls, of course, but I found the experience both rewarding and enjoyable. It was good to get in touch with my Napoleonic complex again.

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About J S Bird

A retired academic, Jeremy will contribute article on subjects that attract his interest. More Posts