Q&A: A Sort of Autobiography.
By Terence Conran
Harper Collins pounds 20
I spent 10 busy years working with Terence Conran. It was a stimulating, exciting period, but also exasperating. Conran operated in an egocentric energy system that was demanding, but also rewarding.
He created among his circle a sense of inclusion or exclusion, a characteristic of all tyrants.
Conran is capable of great charm, possessed of a schoolboyish wit, a marked sensuality and an outstanding sense of style. Not, perhaps, a true original, but with a mastery of his sources so complete that only experts could tell the difference. Yet the same agreeable aesthete was also on occasions coarse, vicious, myopic and self-serving. Elements of spitefulness and pride have lately been added to this catalogue of attributes. He was uncomfortable in human relations, and his apocalyptic tantrums and fetishistic covetousness were surrogates for more gentle emotions.
A decade of all this forces speculation about the character of genius.
Conran's inability to give praise or to say 'thank you' or 'please' is a means of extracting maximum effort from robust employees. But it also amounts to what the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual calls a 'narcissistic personality disorder', defined as: 'A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy.' That seems to me about right.
The business facts are too well known to need repetition: it's the personality that requires analysis. So, an autobiography should be a fascinating thing.
In a nicely understated passage in this one, Sir Tel claims descent from the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, although his own method has not been as severe as Gibbon's: 'Truth, naked unblushing truth ... must be the sole recommendation of this personal narrative.'
Instead, there is a question-and-answer format: a device typical of the man in that it is at once ingenious and exploitative. The tendency is, with some notably stellar exceptions, towards contributions from simpering acolytes and the more docile relatives. The people who know don't need to ask. Promise.
What made this extraordinary man? All those petty slights at school (Bryanston), those suppressed suburban (Esher) longings, the awkward relations with his father (apparently, a bit of a chancer), a true affection for his mother (a Home Counties aesthete), a perhaps ambiguous sexuality ('Nothing,' he once told me, 'wrong with a bit of buggery'), a bohemian who conforms (big houses in Berkshire and Provence), a cigar-munching tycoon who cares about the numbers but immoderately loves art and fine food (Richard Smith and big burgundies), a Stakhanovite and a libertine?
If success can be measured by the number of toys collected, Conran has won the game. The business accomplishment has been to create an enviable personal way of life, which is then commercialised in shops and restaurants.
Le style est l'homme. Shop and eat here and you can be just like me, it seems to say.
This is very attractive, but there has been an evolution from early self-publicity to mid-period self-mythologising that now blurs into periods of mature self-deception. Read this book uncritically and you could get the impression that Terence actually invented baguettes, pate, soup, room-dividers, Japanese artichokes and the duvet. Like most propaganda, these are persuasive half-truths: he cleverly popularised them all. It is not disrespectful of protean efforts to modernise '50s Britain to say that many of Conran's designs were inspired by Italian and Scandinavian originals.
Even Habitat was a version of a store in Boston. Butler's Wharf took New York's South Street Sea-port as its model. Artistically, his genius is as a talent-spotting editor rather than author.
Against the charges of plagiarism, Conran has pleaded a democratic, life-improving campaign on behalf of the commonwealth. However, like Mrs Thatcher and Nigel Mansell, at some point in the '80s he started calling himself 'we'. The mock humility of this collective gesture is deceptive: that first person plural is a deadly effective way of subjugating the personalities and achievements of others.
But what a story! With so much useful and attractive done over 50 years, there is a temptation towards pomposity, if handled with a breezy geniality. Conran is also an infectious amateur educator. For instance, after a social blunder he said: 'My dear Stephen, can't you understand, no-one would like to be called a widow.' His wife Caroline was there at the time. She said: 'I wouldn't mind.'
Still, it's hard to be entirely out of love with someone so devoted to beautiful objects and fine food. The journey from reading Elizabeth David's recipe for ratatouille to opening a shop that sold Provencal kitchenware to making restaurants where you eat it is one we are all grateful he mapped for us. I retain an agonised affection, yet we no longer speak. You could write a book about Terence Conran. Maybe one day I shall. It would be very different to this one.
- A longer version of Stephen Bayley's review appears on the Management Today web site at clickMT.com.