John Howard

Alliance & Leicester was a wonderful introduction to the world of training and development for me. Following the intense staff appraisal training programme described in earlier letters, I was able to immerse myself in customer service, sales, computer-based training and management development initiatives. I was even fortunate enough to be formally trained in video production – cameras, sound, lighting, editing and direction – and produced a number of training videos during the early 90s. These ranged from Pardon? (how to listen effectively) to Any Colour You Like (how to put out fires safely – the title being borrowed from the Pink Floyd track of the same name).

Then, mid-decade, the A&L decided to centralise its professional functions at a purpose-built centre, Carlton Park, sited at the convergence of the M1 and M69 motorways, in Leicestershire. Although offered relocation from Sussex, I decided to take a redundancy package and joined ITT London & Edinburgh Insurance – as a Training Account Executive – in Worthing, some ten miles west of my home. Whereas my work at Alliance & Leicester had been internally focused – the training of staff who worked for the Building Society – ITT L&E was to see me concentrate my skills externally; training staff of other banks, building societies and finance houses to sell ITT L&E’s insurance policies alongside their own core products such as mortgages, personal loans and credit cards.

And it was here that I met a man by the name of John Howard, my new boss…


Dear John

I’d only worked for you for a couple of weeks when we set off to attend a broker’s conference somewhere in darkest Yorkshire. New to the world of insurance, I sat and eagerly observed a number of figures in the industry before taking my own turn. As the first speaker’s name flashed on the screen behind him, I spotted that it was accompanied by the letters CII. “What does CII stand for?” I whispered to you. “Cunt in insurance” came the instant reply. This was funny enough in itself and I had to supress a laugh but then, as the second speaker took the stage, the letters ACII appeared. “Another cunt in insurance” you hissed, without waiting to be asked. I had to go out.

And that really set the scene for our relationship – one based on bizarre humour and jokes. A month later saw us in Ireland, running training courses in Belfast for the branch managers of Ulster Bank ahead of touring round the province to motivate the bank staff to sell our products. We flew over there the day before and spent a most pleasant afternoon playing golf on the municipal course close to our hotel, the Chimney Corner. The following day, you opened the first of the training events and began to introduce me. I knew nothing of what was to come, although I’ll never forget it…

“Let me introduce my colleague, Simon Bailey. Simon’s a bit of sad case, actually. As a small boy, he was playing quite happily in his garden one summer’s afternoon when he was kidnapped by a group of Saudi Arabian giraffe jockeys. Secretly transported to the heat of the Arabian desert, close to the Yemen border, he was made to ride these unfortunate creatures on behalf of a ruthless betting syndicate morning, noon and night before making his escape some three years later by hitching a ride back to Sussex on the back of a Welsh Dragon called Dilys. (You then continued without so much as a breath, and as if all this was perfectly normal). Anyway, that’s the background, now welcome to the course today. Before we get in to any detail, let me talk about what we want to cover over the next couple of hours…”

Ulster Bank was, at that time anyway, quite an old-fashioned, stuffy organisation with long-serving managers who wore three-piece suits to work, smoked pipes and enjoyed leisurely lunches of Irish stew washed down by several pints of Guinness. I wish I’d had a camera with me because those managers’ faces were an absolute treat!

Courses over, we set off on our travels. I remember you being rather pissed off as I was allocated a Renault Laguna and you were saddled with a Daewoo. As payback, you changed my alarm call to 3:30 one morning and I got up, shaved, showered and dressed before realising anything was amiss. In return, I put all my drinks on your bill and checked out. On the flight home, we played poker using packets of biscuits and those little pots of UHT milk as chips. Quite a crowd gathered round us to enjoy the fun – “I’ll raise you a skimmed milk” and “I’ll see your Garibaldi” – before having to return to their seats for landing.

John Howard 001

The late, great John Howard

Back home, the lunacy continued. In those days, I remember we had semi-mobile, rather than mobile, phones. These were devices that were built in to our company cars with a massive receiver unit bolted inside the boot, leaving room for approximately one toilet bag and a banana. If you left a message on one of these devices, you had up to eight minutes recording time and you weren’t able to delete any message until it had been listened to in its entirety. Accordingly, one day, as you were driving back to the office and I was busy running a course, you left me a little ditty that went:

I know a song that will get on your nerves
Get on your nerves
Get on your nerves
I know a song that will get on your nerves
And it goes a bit like this…

I know a song that will get on your nerves
Get on your nerves
Get on your nerves
I know a song that will get on your nerves
And it goes a bit like this…

Repeat for eight minutes.

By way of retaliation, I left you a message which was me stating Pi to approximately three million places. 3.141592738548236638245579423424246549134633………… for another eight glorious minutes.

Then, one terrible Sunday afternoon, you were diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. You’d had back trouble for some time, but we never thought it was the first signs of the horrendous condition which destroys the body but leaves the mind completely intact. It was a massive blow but it didn’t stop the humour. Soon afterwards, on a trip from Sussex to our offices in Cheadle, I recall us ‘planning’ your funeral. I was insistent on having a massive barcode printed on the coffin lid so that, upon committal, I could pick up 10,000 bonus ClubCard points.

I had my 40th birthday party when I was 37, so that you were able to come and enjoy yourself. By the time you became wheel-chair bound, I had moved to Norfolk, but would come down and visit you from time to time. I’d bundle your wheelchair in to the boot, you in to the passenger seat, and drive all the way from Ferring to enjoy a Balti Jal Masala in the most excellent Viceroy restaurant in Newhaven, some 30 miles away. “I still say that travelling 30 miles for a fucking curry is mental” you barked on each of these trips!

When I became ill, I came and stayed with you and your family for a while. We ate curry, drank, smoked, played pool and laughed. It did us both the world of good. I brought a few old photographs to show you. The one below shows me playing the violin at a primary school concert. I remember us crying with laughter – literally – as you looked at my shorts and exclaimed: “that must have been the first time cellulite was ever captured on film”.

The violins!

As the illness took a hold, it was your legs which wasted away the fastest. Your arms remained relatively strong for some time so you bought yourself a hand cycle – to enjoy a bit of exercise and keep up a degree of independence. I recall one occasion, in desperate frustration, you took it down to Ferring seafront on a cold winter’s morning and just started peddling, eastwards. Hours later, a good Samaritan called your wife Debbie, as you had been found, exhausted and tearful, near Brighton, some 15 miles away. However, even this episode wasn’t safe from the scathing humour as, upon hearing about it, I composed the following letter:

JH go east letter #1 001

JH go east letter #2 001

JH go east letter #3 002
John Howard bikle photo

John on his hand cycle

I came to see you several times in Worthing hospital towards the end. The last time – as it turned out – I squeezed the giant inflatable Norwich City canary David and I had perched over your bed on one of our previous visits, then kissed you gently on the forehead as I left. I think we both knew that would be it. A few days later, you sent me a text that read: “thanks for being the best thing that ever happened to me.” I remember I was training in what was then the Reebok Stadium in Bolton at the time. In fact, I recall that I was standing right outside the Sky box when I read that message.

Our humour has stood the test of time: these days, as I stand on Huddersfield station and watch the 6:55 to Manchester Picadilly loom out of the darkness, I smile at your advice: “if you’re going to catch a train, always use a very big net.”

Thanks, matey – for being my boss and my best friend. I fucking love you, man – which are exactly the words I whispered when I kissed you that final time.


John Howard 'star'

John, with ‘his’ star in Hollywood.
He was a star to me

3 thoughts on “John Howard

  1. Debbie Howard says:

    OMG Simon, you have just made me realise that I haven’t laughed (or cried) that much since the days you and John were writing up course material together. Some of the things you used to come out with would have me absolutely wetting myself!!! My mother (the Welsh dragon Dilys) remembers you fondly, she’s just turned 88 and is crazier than ever!
    Brilliant idea by the way, the website I mean, I will have a look at the rest of it later, when I’ve calmed myself down….
    I am sure you will remind a lot of people of some very fond times/memories, you and John certainly did have a very special (albeit bazaar) friendship. Thank you for getting in touch, I will get the boys to read it too, they were far too young to appreciate their Dad’s sense of humour, but they’ll get it now..

  2. Paula Crothers says:

    Simon, currently sitting crying into my laptop! I agree with Mother, we just haven’t laughed as loud or as frequently since John pegged it, that is until I began reading the above. Dropping the C-bomb into the letter within the first half a dozen lines was a nice touch.
    He was a smooth bastard and without sounding like a patchouli smelling bo-ho you’ve captured his essence perfectly. Thank you.
    I will now navigate my way round the rest of the site and devour your words.
    PS. I still can’t listen to ‘Run’ by Snow Patrol without welling up…. and don’t even get me started on that god awful Leona Lewis version!

  3. Jules (was Winton now Hobbs) says:

    Simon, that curry place in Newhaven with you and John … never forgotten it and never will, so funny. Never mind the comedy day job, loved every minute of that too (“what do you think of the colour love?”)! Privileged to know you and spend time with you both and with you Debbie.

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