Once upon a time, people travelled intercontinentally by boat. When long-distance flights took over, I had just started to work for a well-known multi-national. At the time that I arrived in Borneo, the Firm was still organized like the Roman Catholic church. Or like the Persian empire who, after having beaten Babylon, ruled their empire in a decentralised fashion, under satraps. For example, they let the Israelites go home and take care of themselves under such an official.
In the early 1960s, it was unwise to rule the worldwide activities of a multinational firm centrally. Poor communications and local politics required a local approach. The Centre posted a Managing Director with fairly flexible terms of reference and let him go about his business. If something went terribly wrong, the solution was simple. The man was replaced. Nowadays, this has all changed. Something got lost in the process, though. In the old days, some overseas satraps of my Firm were men larger than life. Like one comes across in the stories of Somerset Maugham.
It has happened more than once that a satrap built himself a palace. I spoke about that one day, with one of the Company pilots. He had seen everything. He had even flown in grass sods for a similar project, in Trinidad. The air lift had lasted several weeks. So he was not surprised at all that our Managing Director built himself a palace, overlooking the South-china Sea, with an immaculate lawn where he played croquet on Sunday afternoons with the happy few.
My pilot friend, a second pilot and a board mechanic carried out a shopping flight to Singapore, once a month. The satrap and his wife then went shopping, for the finishing touches of the House. In order to give the flight a democratic touch, wives of carefully selected employees were allowed to make a draw from the hat. The lucky ones were allowed to join. The pilot had just returned from such a flight.
He and I were having a shandy under a parasol in the Club, near the swimming pool overlooking the sea. I had joined him because I wondered why he had a black eye. Also the co-pilot and the board mechanic, who were sitting at a nearby table, looked a bit battered. He told me that there had been a brisk fight the evening before in Singapore, outside the Cockpit, a Dutch restaurant opposite the Goodwood Park Hotel, where good Indonesian rice tables were served.
The satrap had refused to pay the bill because he was charged for something which, he claimed, had not been on the table. Upon leaving the restaurant, six Chinese cooks had been waiting for them. Only the satrap had come away unscathed. He had overseen the fight with folded arms, as behoved him.
The pilot had defended his boss with fervour, because the man had just bought two new twin-engined Beechcrafts in the States, without consulting the Centre. Moreover, also on his own initiative, he had hired a Hovercraft – for testing at sea. The test succeeded for going on and off beaches. But its main purpose was mooring to offshore platforms and that led to hefty bumps and dents in the flimsy vehicle, so these tests had to be abandoned.
As the contract was for a year, the pilot (or does one say the driver?), a nice chap by the name of Harry, had not much to do and did odd jobs. Like transporting our cast and props of the Christmas Old Time Music Hall by Hovercraft to the neighbouring Sarawak, just across the border. I was part of this trip and I remember vividly how we sang ‘Harry row the boat ashore, halleluja”, as the flat-bottomed hovercraft made terrifying slaps on the water between the wave crests.
I have to admit that I admired him, our satrap. He had style. He wore air-conditioned colonial pants with knife-sharp front edges, above immaculate white knee stockings. Also, he wore a peper-and-salt Hitler-like moustache. Firm jaws. Penetrating eyes. He was the Boss, no doubt. Every day, he covered the two kilometers between his palace and the office in an immense black Daimler with Malay driver in black songkok and white jacket. Lovingly, my English colleages called this car The Hearse.
Ten years later, I ran into my satrap in a bar in Abu Dhabi. He worked for another firm. His own. He had mellowed. He introduced me to his very British looking drinking companion, the Manager of the local State Power Plant. He had forgotten that I knew that man already. In the Old Time Music Hall in Borneo, mentioned before, I had accompanied him on the piano when he sang ‘The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo’. A good baritone, too. At the time, he was the Manager of the Government Power Plant in Borneo. Those were the days. Read Somerset Maugham.