Alistair Rettie’s Thanksgiving ServiceSt Michael and all Angels, Barnes, 2nd March 2012
Chris Thorpe’s Address
I first met Alistair in the autumn of 1987, when he was head of Marathon’s legal department, and I applied to Marathon for a job.
After a fairly conventional interview, and before I had received an acceptance or rejection, I was surprised to get a call from Alistair inviting me to lunch. This was typical of Alistair. He was not content to judge from a thirty minute formal interview, but wanted to get to know his man.
He surprised me when he said: “If the legal work is first rate, and your clients love you, I don’t care what else you do, or don’t do. If there is no work to do, then don’t come in.”
I remember thinking: “I wonder if that’s true?” A lot of half-truths are told at interviews, on both sides, are they not?
When I arrived at Marathon, I wondered what I had let myself in for. You have already heard from Dan about the clockwork frog and the funny accents. That was the least of it! Soon the penny dropped: you cannot afford to behave like this unless the department is truly first rate. Mediocre legal advice served up with a load of jokes is not going to do it.
It was indeed a first rate department – certainly the most powerful I ever worked in, and the most fun.
A couple of months later I got the answer to the question that had occurred to me at the interview. One morning I overslept horribly and arrived at Marathon House at 12.30. When this happens, the one person you hope not to run into is your boss, so I crept in quietly up the back stairs. But there was Alistair standing right outside my room. When he saw me he burst out laughing, clapped his hands, and said: “So good of you to join us, Chreestoff! You are just in time for lunch.”
Alistair made me believe in myself as a lawyer, in a way in which I did not before. In this I know I also speak for others, many of them here today. And I learned from him that the oil business, despite its giant corporations, huge projects and vast budgets, is essentially personal. You have to know and understand the individuals on your side, and on the other side.
When I find myself in a negotiation in some far off place, with jet lag and a roomful of strangers, I think of Alistair and tell a joke. Both professionally and personally, I owe him a great debt.
Our friendship survived the Marathon years, and in 2007 we went into business together with TLA Conferences. There was no written agreement between us, incidentally. I can hear some of the lawyers present sucking their teeth!
The idea was to build a mighty business empire without ever telling anyone what TLA actually stood for. In fact it stood for Three Letter Acronym – which we agreed on to save us having to think of a proper name.
In September 2010 he called: “Chreestoff, three items of business.” I said “Fire away.” “First”, he said, lunch!” So we fixed a date. “Second, I have finished my book, Marshals of Napoleon, and would like to speak with you about how I go about getting it published.” I said “Fine, let’s discuss it.” “Third” he said “I have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told I have between two and five months to live.” Stunned, I said “I don’t like that third item of business.” He replied “I’m not too keen on that one either!”
We agreed to publish his book – again, without a written agreement between us.
I went to see Alistair with a proof copy of Marshals. As I read it on the train I spotted a ghastly misprint. It was only the addition of an extra “e” on the end of a word, but the extra letter completely changed the meaning of the sentence. I told him that we would have to halt the print run to correct this error, which meant that the printed copies would not be available in time for the launch party.
When I showed him the misprint, he roared with laughter. “Chreestoff” he said “I am the author of this book, am I not?” “Yes”, I replied. “So I decide what is in the book, what the text actually says?” “Yes”, I replied. “Well” he said “I like it with the extra letter in. Print it like that.”
So The Marshals of Napoleon contains a remarkable sentence. This is in the section about Grouchy, who was dithering around the countryside instead of marching to join Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo:
“Incredibly, Grouchy’s corpse had covered only six miles in the whole of that day.” I will leave the last word to Alistair. It was always safer that way.
My last communication with him came about three weeks ago. I came across a Chinese saying that was new to me and amused me greatly. I thought: Alistair will like this, and sent it to him by text:
“Chinese saying: a peasant must stand a long time on the hillside with his mouth open before a roast duck flies in.”
Half an hour later his reply came in: “Optimists say, change hillside!”