I used to have a posh job. I was a City Challenge manager. In a nutshell, City Challenge was a massive regeneration programme dreamed up by the Minister for the Environment in Maggie Thatcher’s government. Thirty-one cities in England each had £37,500,000 to spend over five years on dealing with the problems of one targeted area. The money went on tarting up neighbourhoods, job creation, social and community projects and the like. It was equivalent to around $50million so serious stuff. We had to shift over $10million a year, and what’s more we were supposed to spend it wisely, on things that would make a lasting difference and ‘fix’ these disadvantaged, broken neighbourhoods for good.
It was a tall order, but I enjoyed it. You can do a lot of good when money is no object. We were dealing with some pretty big projects and powerful individuals, both in government and business. We managers got invited to lots of swanky functions and it was on one of these excursions that I had a moment which has stayed with me as one of the most awkward situations I ever found myself in.
I was at the unveiling of a major new business and retail park development. The developers were looking for financial contributions (naturally), and wanted to show off a bit. They’d had one of those scale models made – this was in the days before computer generated fly-throughs – and even those archaic things cost an arm and a leg. The work of art was in a glass case and were all invited to cluster around it and gaze at this wonder of the retail world which could be ours if we would just pull out our cheque books.
Ladies first and all that, I found myself at the front. I listened to the grand claims of the architects and designers and gulped at the price tag. I recall that the Chair of our Board was standing next to me and he broke his pencil when the sum they were seeking from us was mentioned. But I digress…
I leaned over the case to get a closer look at some detail or other, but needed to be careful not to actually touch the glass as mucky fingerprints would not be appreciated. To make certain, I clasped my hands behind my back and did what I could to come up with some sensible questions. I was a humble community work manager in charge of the social, education and crime reduction stuff. Multi-million pound retail parks were not really my strength, but I made an effort, like you do.
I’d seen enough, and done my duty. Time to move aside and let others better qualified than I get up close and personal with the masterpiece. I straightened, my hands still behind me, and I stepped back.
Big mistake. Big, gigantic, enormous mistake. I heard a faint gasp behind me. I wriggled my fingers to makes sure, which was another huge error in judgement. I turned my head.
Right behind me, a knowing smile on his face, stood Her Majesty’s Under Secretary of State for the Environment. And I was holding his balls in my hands.
He said nothing. He merely gave me a dignified bow of his head, placed his hands on my shoulders and pushed me forward one pace. I released the ministerial nuts and scuttled off to hide at the back of the crowd.
To my eternal relief, I never met that particular minister again. Nothing was ever said, and I can only be grateful for the discretion of the politician concerned. In the twenty plus years since I’ve done my best to forget the incident. Until now, of course.