My inspiration: Dennis Brown, traveller and intellectual

This week, a group of bright and energetic young people from a major auditing business visited one of our hostels. As part of their corporate social responsibility commitment the company wants to support Thames Reach. The hostel residents have all spent many years sleeping rough on the streets. Sitting in the garden, our visitors listen transfixed to Michael who has the battered visage and colourful life history that fascinates, shocks and appals. They are intrigued too by the staff - and puzzled. ‘What made you enter this line of work?’ they ask. These are good people, but the sub-text is indisputably: ‘Why would articulate, educated and capable people like you want to do this work when you could earn vastly greater sums of money and attain greater status in the corporate sector’? Then, predictably, they also ask me, ‘Who inspired you?’ I can feel the short-list being shoved in my direction. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Mandela? After all, dramatic work with the poor requires a source of inspiration of iconic proportions. ‘It was Dennis Brown’ I mumble feeling, irrationally, that I am letting them down.

In 1980 I fled university clutching an Honours Degree in Modern History which turned out to be of no use to man or beast. I was attracted by an advert in New Society magazine offering the opportunity to live in a house with ten homeless people for which, in return, I would receive £9 a week wages and a room. I figured that the poor could benefit considerably from my intelligence and ready wit and that my presence would undoubtedly improve the quality of their wretched lives.

The house, situated in a tawdry quarter of West Kensington, was full of fascinating individuals including Ivy whose psychotic state meant that she was stalked by two ghost-like apparitions called Jack and Marge. And then there was Dennis Brown. Dennis wore a long brown overcoat, even on the hottest summer day and in the first few weeks of my stay needed crutches to get around. Attempting to enter a derelict building via a window left open on the second floor, he had unwittingly used a ladder with a broken rung, fallen and broken a leg.

I was pleased that Dennis quickly sized me up as an intellectual, and when I told him that my dissertation had been on the Nigerian trade union movement: 1939-51, the very abstruseness of which always gave me a thrill, I felt our relative positions had been clearly established.

Shortly after, Dennis asked me if I could discuss a book with him. I had occasionally dipped into Wilbur Smith and Harold Robbins so was confident that I could do low-brow without too much trouble. To my consternation, Dennis wished to discuss Bleak House by Charles Dickens. He wanted my view on whether I regarded the book as influential in achieving reform of the judicial system in the second half of the 19th century. I had to admit to him that I had not read Bleak House and was therefore nonplussed by his question. Dennis’ wrinkled brow illustrated his great disappointment and – worse – surprise at this significant gap in my education.

Part of the ritual of the house was the communal meal, produced in rotation by house members. My early effort, a mediocre sausage stew, had been described, brutally I felt, as ‘floating turds’. Dennis’ turn was next. As I trailed around the delicatessens of West London searching for the extensive range of ingredients he required, my resentment blossomed. However, there was no doubt that the resulting grilled honey lamb chops with rosemary and whole-grain mustard was a great success. How the residents chortled as they compared Dennis’ cooking with mine.

My humiliation was not yet complete. The coup de grace was delivered at the house meeting the following week. We were planning a group trip out and I had contacted Fulham Football Club for some free tickets. Dennis fixed me with a beady eye as he proposed instead that we attend a performance of Giselle. But first he would be interested in my critical analysis of Giselle. I squirmed like a worm upon a hook to turn the conversation but eventually had to admit that I had no idea whether Giselle was a ballet or an opera. Miserably I stared at the floor as, for the benefit of his fellow residents, Dennis launched into a brief description of one of the world’s most admired ballets currently playing, he noted, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Total defeat allowed me to settle into an amicable and respectful relationship with Dennis who henceforth acted as my mentor. Near the end of my time at the house he praised me for the stability I had brought, reflected in the improvement in Ivy’s mental health. My eyes filled with tears of gratitude. Passing by six months later, I popped in to see old friends. Dennis had predictably moved on once his leg had healed fully and we never met again.

We Chief Executives are terribly important. Rubbing shoulders with politicians, opinion-formers and celebrities and strutting around the corridors of power we have little difficulty in retaining a sense of worth. Even when we are mediocre there are acolytes who tell us we are marvellous. Sometimes it all gets too overwhelming: ‘You are brilliant' our egos shriek, 'they all want to follow you!’ And then, on a good day, the memory of Dennis Brown breaks through: the cold douche of reality bringing me to my senses, the reminder that humility is the greatest leadership quality of all.

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