No More Leaning on Lamp-posts: Managing Uncertainty the Nick Charles Way

Villa Publishing Ltd - 01 September, 2005 Buy here

I was asked to write this book by my students at the London School of Economics. They are fascinated by all aspects of entrepreneurship, and are forever inquiring into the skills necessary for a successful entrepreneur – no doubt many intend to go on and make their own personal fortunes after completing their studies. When they enquired about the management literature on entrepreneurship, I would direct them, but with little enthusiasm, to the sanitised ‘autobiographies’ of successful businessmen and women, and toward various ‘how to’ books – to the ‘usual suspects.’

In a weak moment during one particular seminar, and for some light relief, I happened to mention a neighbour, Nick Charles; an entrepreneur with some very radical views about running small and medium sized enterprises. His story immediately caught my students’ imagination, and they badgered me for more and more information about him.¬†¬†However, as I set about recounting Nick’s insights, the text took on a form less and less like a business book, and instead began to coalesce around my telling of Nick’s life story. I spent many laughter-packed hours finding out about his business dealings. Each time I raised a particular management issue with him, Nick would illustrate his thinking on the topic with an anecdote about his highly colourful (mis)adventures that read more like fiction than fact. I would ask him a management-type question and then sit back to tape-record his responses. However, these interviews would inevitably veer off on a random walk, only tenuously linked to whatever business issue that started the discussion.

Be clear, this is NOT a ‘how to’ book. No! This is a life-story – the life-story of a DRUNK. For Nick was a drunk. I am not just talking here about the odd legless social embarrassment of losing control after drinking to excess. Nick was your classic down-and-out alcoholic tramp – a genuine facedown in the gutter, stinking of vomit, excrement and urine, drunken bum. After one protracted detox, and before being let loose on an unsuspecting world again, a nurse brought a sober Nick a disgusting collection of clothes. “I’m not putting those on,” he said. “Well you took them off,” came the accusing reply.

Ultimately, during one such lapse back into sobriety, this sense of shame at his degradation forced Nick to reassess his life, and through sheer bloody-mindedness, he managed to pull himself back from the brink, before setting out on his life’s journey to help other hopeless alcoholics. He founded and runs the Chaucer Clinic, the largest private alcohol rehabilitation clinic in Britain. Nick became the first ever person to be honoured “for services to people with alcohol problems” with an MBE in the 1996 New Year’s Honours List.

From the gutter to the palace
nickdrunk proudmum

Consequently this book does not contain the usual simplistic, patronising (and ultimately futile) solutions that many business books recommend to the despairing businessman and woman in their quest to escape the vicious circle of stress that is their everyday experience of business decision-making. What follows is the narrative description of one drunk’s personal management education, accumulated on his private journey to hell and back. It is left to the readers to take from this book what they will. Those who are not interested in the management sections can just skip them, and simply reflect on the stories – and what stories!

To give readers a flavour of the man, there follows a couple of tales that are typical of Nick’s attitude to life, and subsequently of his approach to business. In these stories, as in the rest of the book, most of the names have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike – it has always been Nick’s policy not to name people who are or have been involved in any way with the Clinic unless they have specifically given permission, or the events are a matter of public record.


Nick left home at the age of 15 to seek fame and fortune in London’s music scene. This was the early 1960s, when a singer-songwriter (like Nick) would sell a song for the price of a meal (or a drink), or see them plagiarised by powerful figures in the business. Even when topping the pop charts, a successful singer would earn a mere 20 pound a week. Luckily Nick came to the attention (in more ways than one) of Jayne Evans, who was socially very well connected. Taking him under her wing (and bedcovers), Jayne launched her ‘toy-boy’ into the ‘better booking’ scene, where he performed a 30-minute cabaret spot at prestigious events all over the country.

The organisation behind some of these ‘gigs’ was sloppy to say the least, which was surprising given the large amounts of money involved, the undoubted distinction of some of the venues, and at times the eminence of the hosts. On one occasion Nick was handed a Park Drive cigarette packet, and written on the back in eyebrow pencil was the address of the venue. This turned out to be a stately pile set deep in the shires, later to become infamous as the setting of a major political scandal. His fee, ten times the national average weekly wage of the time, was stuffed inside the pack. The name of the nearest town was also scrawled on the packet, but due to lack of space the county wasn’t mentioned. By coincidence (!) there was a town with a similar name just 20 miles from Nick’s home. Only the sober but late attention of his father warned Nick that the actual venue was 150 miles south. He arrived at the big house with minutes to spare, and rushed to his dressing room with scarcely time to look around.

‘Half cut,’ because he was already abusing the booze, he staggered onto the stage in his white evening dress suit, face make-up slapped on quickly, guitar slung nonchalantly over his shoulder. Through the haze he vaguely remembered the wise words of an ‘old-timer’: “Always get a look at your audience before the curtain goes up. Never let what you are going to face come as a surprise.” True to his mentor, Nick peeped casually through the curtains. They were all stark naked! Except, that is, for bow ties, socks and garters, and the odd tiara.

Nick turned to the compere in shock: “They’re all bloody starkers.” But the words froze on his lips – for the ‘Master of Ceremonies’ too stood before him as naked as a jaybird, apart from a red bow tie mounted on white furred elastic. Before Nick could get any more words out, the outrageously gay MC chimed in. “Who’s going to look a silly boy then, all dressed up like a dog’s dinner in front of that lot!” Being a pragmatist, and thinking of the money, Nick stripped all his clothes off, and performed his act with his guitar slung just slightly lower than usual. It was too late to do anything about his opening number: “I want you to play with My Ding-a-Ling.”

The Chaucer Marauders

There is far more to Nick’s style of decision making than just pragmatic action. He is committed to putting his trust in the potential of the most unlikely bunch of people that have coalesced around him over the years, including utilising the talents (although not unconditionally) of the drunks from the Clinic. Just how he does it, and how far he will go, you will glean from the following small selection of his misadventures taken from the past four decades, both drunk and sober. Hopefully this will show those managers, who insist on complaining about the people below them in the corporate pecking order, that “they can find talent in the most unexpected of places.” Nick insists “a failure to find and exploit that talent is most likely a failing of management, and not of the talent itself.” So whenever managers feel justified in blaming their workforce, they should think again – think about the world of Nick Charles.

They should ponder how they would have dealt with the following situation from the early days of the Chaucer Clinic. The building that was to house the original clinic had no electricity, no running water, no heating, and the roof had 41 holes in it. After a minimum of preparation, the doors of Chaucer were to be opened for business one Monday. On the previous Friday a short article about Nick had appeared in the local newspaper, in which he invited anyone with a drink problem to help him set up a unit. Nick worked on the principle that the drunks couldn’t be both working with him and drinking at the same time. The policy for all was strictly no booze, backed up with an expressed desire to work towards a sober life. “There’s nothing wrong with them drinking like a fish, as long as they drink what the fish drinks.”

Very soon the problems of refurbishing the desolate building he had taken on seemed insurmountable. He had no money – Nick was down to his last twelve pounds fifty since his show business career had finally given up on him. Undaunted, he welcomed the drunks as, in dribs and drabs, they started to arrive. Suddenly strange things began to happen. Electricity appeared miraculously at the flick of a switch; hot water gushed from rusty taps; the smell of bacon and eggs wafted from a brand new frying pan that was cooking on a mysteriously new stove; new tiles seemed to grow out of the walls; gallons of paint flowed like winter rain; there was more furniture than Pickfords could handle in a month of Sundays. It was a wonderful feeling to realise that there was so much help and generosity out there.

How did all this happen? You may well ask! Nick didn’t realise it at the time, but the Chaucer Marauders had spontaneously combusted onto the scene. The first time it occurred to Nick that perhaps not all of the Clinic’s benefactors were kosher was when two police officers arrived asking for a Mr Chasnick. It didn’t need a Sherlock Holmes to make the connection with Nick Charles. The police were making enquiries concerning a suspicious receipt for several hundred pounds worth of building materials that had apparently been purchased by a Marauder who was now securely locked away in police custody. The offending document, which had obviously been printed with a child’s ‘John Bull’ print set (remember this event took place long before the advent of desktop publishing), was the only proof of ownership to the van-load of materials. Nick, having no prior knowledge of any of the materials, gave a vague explanation of the Clinic’s situation to the two officers. He apologised, adding that he had no control over the Marauder’s exuberance.

The police explained that they were not concerned about the goods, or their destination. They were investigating the theft of a British Telecom van – the van that just happened to be transporting the materials to the Clinic. Under questioning, the Marauder in custody said he had just borrowed the van, and had every intention of returning it. Nick quickly organised a group of Marauders – those who weren’t in jail – and off they went to unload the vehicle of its cargo. The van, complete with all its very expensive tools, was returned to BT. The accused pleaded insanity, and subsequently the Law in all its wisdom decided that the case was impossible to prosecute or defend. The Marauder eventually arrived safely back with Nick via a short stay at the local psychiatric unit.

Thanks to the steady flow of building materials, the renovations continued apace. However, the roof was becoming the biggest problem, not because of a lack of supplies, but because they didn’t have a ladder to get up there. Nick was not altogether surprised when a ladder suddenly materialised out of thin air, although he was somewhat sceptical when told that the Local Authority had donated it. Much later that same day the Director of Estates for the hospital (in whose grounds Chaucer was situated) arrived looking extremely angry. A very agitated and flustered Council worker accompanied him. Apparently the man had been stranded on a nearby roof for four hours before being rescued by a colleague. Someone had stolen his ladder while he was up there. The executive demanded to search the premises. Realising that possibly the game was up, and with eviction beckoning, Nick feigned complete surprise. Silently and reluctantly he accompanied the two on their search. Nothing! Finally, after having twice combed the building from end to end, they adjourned to the garden and searched behind shrubs and bushes. Still nothing!

Walking down the garden path towards the Clinic building Nick’s blood froze as he caught sight of the black ladder overhanging a section of flat roof. The Estates Manager saw it too, and pointed it out to the workman. “Is that it George?”

“No,” the man said immediately, “mine was a white-metalled aluminium lightweight.” The Estates Manager mumbled a few half-hearted words of apology, and Nick courteously escorted the two men up the drive and off the property. On the way back to his office, Nick looked up at the ladder – wondering! He stood there in quiet contemplation when slowly, very slowly, a wet blob of black paint dripped mischievously onto his shoes!

The Chaucer Marauders had triumphed again! As for Nick Charles, he just quietly walked away.

Now if you want to learn more of Nick’s triumphs, and his disasters, and just how he manages to ‘treat those two impostors just the same,’ then you’ll have to read the book. There you can set out on the bumpy ride that is a guided tour of Nick’s life.