Thursday, March 06, 2008

A life in service

One of my favourite films is the Robert Altman classic, Gosford Park, which is a study of the complexity of life in an English Stately Home over one weekend in the inter-war period. On one level it is a murder mystery, a whodunit, but what makes it repeatedly watchable is the recreation of a more or less self-contained community, full of strong personalities and odd behaviours, but a community nonetheless.

This week, our Principal addressed the staff and faculty of the College in the largest of our meeting rooms, a tiered auditorium we call National Grid. The topic was an up-date on the proposed merger with Reading, but I won't bore you with details of that (or satisfy your curiosity with juicy tidbits).

What was worth remarking was seeing the whole College in one place. Every seat was filled, and the great and good from Faculty sat alongside the chefs and maids from our excellent hotel and restaurant. Like many service organisations, I suppose we struggle collectively knowing whether what we do is a science or an art. We often try to see it as one and then realise that it is perhaps other, and suffer as a result. I think it remains ever a blend between the two.

The merger with Reading Business School has a hard to argue case for it. Henley's strategic goal to be a permanent member of the "World's Best Business Schools" club is one I share. However, I think we will all miss, and might need to mourn in a brief, understated and typically British way, the end of our splendid, isolated and idiosyncratic independence.

There are plenty of great lines in Gosford Park, but to my mind the one that reflects the 'beow stairs' work that programme members (I hope) find when they visit Henley is this:

Lady Sylvia McCordle: Mrs Wilson, absolute crisis. I've just found out that Mr Weissman won't eat meat. I don't know what to do and I can't ask Mrs Croft. I simply don't dare.
Mrs. Wilson: Everything's under control your ladyship. Mr Weissman's valet informed us as soon as he after he arrived so we've prepared a special version of the soup, he can eat the fish and the hors d'oeuvres, there'll be a welsh rarebit for the game course, I'm not sure what we're going to do about the entree but we'll think of something.
Lady Sylvia McCordle: Thank you Mrs Wilson. Ten steps ahead as always.

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