As the hotel employee said to George Best when he found him in his suite, lying on a bed of banknotes in the arms of a naked Miss World, ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ Perhaps for some, a qualitative deterioration in life began when they first started serving salad with fish and chips. But probably the seeds of our self-destruction were already planted in our ancestors before they even hauled themselves out of the primeval bog and on to dry land. It was the same when their descendants ventured from the green comfort of the Great Rift Valley and trailed north, oblivious of impending climate change. And it was the same when their colonising descendants returned to the Heart of Darkness and to a zoonotic disease that would spread to all four corners of the earth. Shamans will say of our occasional, and ultimately final, tragic destiny ‘it is written’; Higgs and Boson will say it is in our DNA and will be looking for it with microscopes.
For Monsieur Blondeau things started to go spectacularly wrong close to his fortieth birthday in the 1970s. It was at a time when labour-intensive investment was shifting from the old to the new world and, as in many a calamity, it was the wider issue that triggered the personal. It was a time when the satanic mills and coalmines of Europe were being dismantled and abandoned, a time when great and ancient shipyards on the Mediterranean shore, on the Clyde and in Belfast were closing, skeletal cranes marking their graves along the seashores and banks of estuaries. It was a time when riveters of ships’ plates and deep seam miners began to join the list of skilled workers lost to progress, along with the fletchers and coopers, the thatchers and cordwainers. Remnants of the Industrial Revolution, like Ironbridge, and more modern structures like Battersea Power Station, were turned into museums. The only Western European countries attempting to modernise their heavy industries were Russia and its Polish satellite; the rest of Western Europe turned to tourism, printing T-shirts and gambling, or dealing in futures and options as the financial community prefer to call it.
Among the first countries to invest in the steel industry abandoned by Britain, France and Germany were Brazil and Venezuela. Part of that huge investment was spent on the rolling-beam and rotary hearth furnaces supplied by the French engineering company where I was employed, and I found myself travelling back and forth to South America in the process of organising our commercial presence in those countries. The contracts prescribed the establishment of branch offices, limited production and the training and use of local labour. These were long-term contracts requiring the expatriation of scores of French engineers and their families for two or three years. Monsieur Blondeau, a tall, dark draughtsman of few words was one of the first to volunteer. His wife also worked in the company as a secretary and it was agreed that she would accompany him and provide administrative help in the plant and accounting office we were setting up in an industrial estate close to the town of Campinas, some 80 kilometres from Sao Paulo.
As I went back and forth to Brazil I learned more about the Blondeau family. The husband and wife were leaving two daughters, one of whom was married, and a son behind. The son was serving a prison sentence for drug-related offences and the unmarried daughter was in a nursing home suffering from a nervous breakdown. The day before I was to leave on one of my trips to Brazil I was asked to take Monsieur Blondeau’s unmarried daughter with me. It was arranged that a doctor would release the girl into my care at Orly Airport and her parents would be at the airport in Sao Paulo to collect her. And so it was that Blondeau’s daughter, sobbing incessantly throughout the whole trip and soaking the sleeve of my suit jacket, flew into an altogether new and more hideous nightmare.
The day before I was due to return to Paris, I found the Blondeau family reunited, happy and smiling by the pool at the country club. Their reunion was tragically brief. One month later Monsieur Blondeau was driving his wife home from a restaurant along one of Brazil’s many pitted and unlit highways when he ran full pelt into the back of an unlit, stationary truck. Wooden planks, protruding beyond the tail-board, sliced through the car’s windscreen, decapitating Madame Blondeau. Her husband was unhurt. Within days he was back in the office with his usual placid smile as if nothing had happened.
Shortly after the death of Madame Blondeau I was sent to Brazil on a more permanent basis. Complications caused by an inflation rate of 10% per month, the resignation of the local General Manager and delays in the Brazilian Government’s payment schedule had forced French management to reinforce its team in Brazil.
Three of us set out, P-J to be General Manager, EM to beef up the engineering side and myself as CFO to risk sending the whole operation into bankruptcy. We had only been in Brazil for a short time when we learned that the recently bereaved Monsieur Blondeau was living with one of the Brazilian secretaries we had employed locally. A sensuous black girl from Bahia, she was half Blondeau’s age, attractive, ambitious and self-confident to the point of insolence. Within months she had fallen out with Blondeau’s daughter and driven her out of the home.
The Mayor of the quiet and prosperous town of Campinas, where Blondeau, his daughter and girlfriend lived, had decreed that no bars, brothels or gambling were to be allowed within the city’s precincts. All of these forms of entertainment were contained in a special enclosed area outside of town near the international airport. This red-light city, ringed by a barbed-wire fence with a permanent police presence at the sole point of entry, was known as the “Zona” and it was here that Monsieur Blondeau’s rejected daughter went to live and to earn her living as a prostitute. There was no way out of the Zona. Her neighbours were all brothel madams, drug-dealers, pimps and fellow whores. Soon pregnant and later the mother of a baby boy, she left the Zona only long enough to deposit her son into the care of her father and his Bahian mistress. Strangely, the added distress of his daughter’s circumstances did nothing to remove Monsieur Blondeau’s permanent grin of contented complacency.
Like all the expatriates, Monsieur Blondeau was entitled to an annual trip back to France for himself and partner. And so it was that I approved the purchase of two return tickets from Sao Paulo to Paris via Rome. On the day of Blondeau’s departure, even as his plane lifted into the evening sky over the Zona, I took a call from someone wishing to talk to the departing Frenchman. The caller identified herself as Blondeau’s elder, married daughter. Incoherent in her misery, I was unable to understand her problem and could only tell her that her father would be in Rome in 12 hours time and in Paris 2 days later. Blondeau arrived in Paris to the news that his daughter had been killed in a domestic fight on the evening I had taken her call. Some weeks later he reported back for work. There was no outside sign that the latest tragic event in his life had upset his normal cheerful composure.
With his wife and eldest daughter dead, his son in prison, his younger daughter a prostitute and his mistress the sulky ward of his daughter’s illegitimate child, there seemed nowhere to go but up. But fate and the company President had other ideas. And so it was, on the President’s next visit to Brazil, that Monsieur Blondeau was fired. Electing to remain in Brazil, he bought a nail-making machine with his redundancy package, grew a big black beard and settled down in a shanty suburb of Campinas with his grandson and his black mistress.
The ancient Greeks believed that on the third night after a child’s birth the Moirai (the Three Sisters of Destiny) would decide the course of the child’s life. Clotho would spin the thread of life, Lachesis would tailor it and Atropos would decide when the thread would be cut and life ended. Perhaps Monsieur Blondeau’s composure in the face of tragedy lay in accepting the destiny the Sisters had designed for him. Or perhaps Tyche, daughter of Aphrodite and Hermes and Goddess of Luck, played a part, because I’m not sure, even now, whether Monsieur Blondeau was the luckiest or the unluckiest man I ever knew. Perhaps to endure those disasters and to end up self-employed in the dreamy tropics with a young Bahian mistress was more than he could ever dream of.
George Best: Gloriously talented Manchester United and Northern Ireland footballer who self destructed in 2005 at the age of 59. ‘I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars; the rest I just squandered.’