Dealing with Debt – Philip Brewer Style

Whilst researching the SSG SPCK saga...

Matt Wills: Whilst researching the SSG SPCK saga...

Phil Groom writes:

Our dearly beloved friend Philip Brewer has been at it again, sending cryptic memos to bookshop staff. This time he seems to have taken on the role of financial advisor, but somehow I suspect that his advice isn’t quite regulated by the FSA. Matt Wills has posted the full text of the memo (screenshot on the right) — it’s a fascinating tale that Mr Brewer has left wide open to interpretation: the key point is that where logic might not work, lateral thinking might…

The story tells us of a young woman whose father has fallen on hard times and can’t pay his debts. A money lender, an unsavoury character to whom her father is in debt, has taken a shine to the girl and made an offer: marry him and the debt will be cancelled; refuse and the father goes to jail.

For reasons best known to the money lender (for as we all know, money lenders have twisted minds) rather than play straight he tries to pull a fast one on the girl by pretending to give her a way out: “Pick a stone,” he says. “Pick the black one and I’ll cancel the debt but you must marry me; pick the white one and I’ll cancel the debt and you go free. Refuse to play and your father goes to jail.”

This girl’s no fool, though: she realises that there are only two black stones in the money lender’s bag, so when she picks one she fumbles, drops it and loses it amongst the other stones on the path. The money lender is forced to reveal his hand showing a black stone; inevitable conclusion: the stone the girl dropped was the white one, and she and her father both go free.

As I said, Mr Brewer has left the tale wide open to interpretation. So let’s indulge him and ask, who’s who in this tale? Of course, I could be wrong, but here’s how I suspect Mr Brewer sees it:

  • The father, in debt, estates at risk, unable to pay: Mark and Philip Brewer
  • The daughter: the bookshops and their staff
  • The wicked money lender: their unpaid suppliers

The real twist in the tale, however, isn’t the girl’s clever solution to her problem: it’s the way the story puts the weight of responsibility on the girl. The father? He’s just there in the background, undoubtedly a splendid chap whose problems are really no fault of his own. The money lender: well, anyone who puts someone else in the sort of position the father finds himself in is self-evidently wicked, isn’t he? So thank heavens for the girl who stands between them…

Let’s ignore the inconvenient fact that the father should have handled his affairs more carefully. Let’s ignore the inconvenient fact that the money lender was once a friend who helped the father out when he was building up his business. Let’s ignore the inconvenient fact that the father is a bad debtor who has mismanaged his affairs… that the money lender has a perfectly legitimate right to reclaim his money.

Instead, let’s twist it and turn the money lender into a fiend. Let’s portray him — let’s portray St Stephen the Great’s unpaid suppliers — as merciless monsters demanding more than their dues. And let’s tell the girl — let’s tell the bookshop staff — this is your problem, not your father’s. Mr Brewer’s sitting pretty: it’s your jobs that are on the line if the bailiffs come around. So look sharp, people, think sideways, think backwards, think upside-down and back-to-front: let’s play games, let’s shuffle things around… let’s mix it up… let’s take the stock from Birmingham and mix it up with the stock from Durham; let’s take the stock from Norwich and mix it up with Chichester; let’s mix up Exeter with York… and suddenly those wicked, wicked suppliers…

Well, they’re screwed, aren’t they? How on earth are they going to be able to reclaim their stock now when no one can tell what came from where or when? And who’s left to carry the can? Not Messrs Brewer, oh no, they’re innocent men doing their best, dealing with demanding suppliers and difficult staff…

Lateral thinking. You have to love it. Like fibre, it goes straight through you and comes out as… a slight problem: I suspect SSG’s suppliers aren’t into silly games with stones; and I don’t think mixing it up was the staff’s idea…

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12 responses to “Dealing with Debt – Philip Brewer Style

  1. That’s kind of what i thought, but i just couldn’t pin it down into words…:)

  2. I’m taking time off to digest this. Thanks Wills (sorry) Matt.

  3. Pauline Edwards

    I think the Brewers has seriously lost the plot, why do they always go round the garden, instead of just saying things right out. It was like the shops, there closing, then no there not, then they are closing, and here your wage slip, were paying you, no changed our minds, then yes we will etc, they love playing mind games, they do my head in. I think they love the upper hand, and we don’t have a clue what there talking about all the time.

  4. Also, is this a case of a father who can’t pay his debts or one who won’t, who has actually hidden away his resources because he would rather lose his daughter than his money? What would be the market value of the senior partner’s share of Brewer and Pritchard, I wonder? Or has it already been mortgaged?

  5. Interesting. I’m not very learned in philosophy, but when I read the whole story, it looked to me like the dilemma was the old standard “does the end justify the means?” problem. It’s also a classic in folk tales from all over the world–the trickster tricked or the deceiver deceived.

    Assuming the moneylender is a lecherous old usurer, is it OK for the girl to resort to deception in order to save her father from jail and herself from a fate worse than death? Most of us would probably say yes–the moneylender in this tale is the bad guy, and the girl and her father are the good guys. She’s justified in tricking him because he’s tried to trick her first, and because she is saving herself and her father from undeserved fates.

    The problem here is that the Brewers are portraying themselves as the good guys–the innocents (abroad?) who are under threat from the evil, deceptive enemy. I don’t know about everybody else, but I have a lot of trouble seeing them in that light. To me, they look more like the evil tricksters.

    I guess we could put it another way: Former Staffer X is owed amount Y in wages that were never paid to him (her). This is causing serious financial hardship. Should s/he:
    a) Break into a shop when no one is looking and remove amount Y from the till?
    b) Haul their asses into court and sue them for it?
    c) In the event (b) is thwarted because of dodgy legal maneuvers, raise a public outcry?
    c) Just shut up and go away because the Brewers are, after all, the good guys?

  6. If the Brewers are the Father then they are asking the staff to deceive people.

    If the Brewers are the Maiden then they feel they are the victim and the end justifies the means.

    If the Brewers are the Moneylender then they are admitting to deception and force to get their hands on the Father’s remaining asset – the Maiden.

    If the Brewers are the pebbles then one day we will be able to throw them away and let them sink to the bottom of the pond.

    If the Brewers are the Moneylender’s bag then I bet it still has SPCK written on the side!

  7. Phelim McIntyre

    So -lets presume that the Brewers are the father who can not pay his debts to the money lender and take it in the light of the court action. Oh dear I borrowed money that I can not pay back. Why don’t I send my daughter (the bookshops) to plead with the nasty money lender (those dastardly suppliers and ex-staff who are taking us to court). Lets ignore my illegal dealings of lying about assets, lets ignore the illegal moving of assets from shops I am closing. Lets just make people realise that I am so much the victim. Hopefully the courts will see past their lateral thinking – “I was badly advised”. I can think of a much more appropriate story – the shops are Cinderella and the Brewers are the ugly sisters and wicked stepmother rit large.

  8. It occurs to me that the Brewers were in USA universities in the early 70s – the time of Dr Eric Berne`s trendy psychology – in books such as “The Games People Play” and “What do you say after you say Hello?” Berne was very much into fairy stories.
    I`d like to suggest to the Brewers that if they are the father in this story, then they do not have a `winner`s script`here.
    What`s more. Berne thought in triangles, composed of victim, persecutor and rescuer, and this is where Phil Brewer has messed up. He sees himself as victim, the suppliers as persecutors and the bookshops as rescuers. Meanwhile the staff and former staff of the bookshops (obviously)see themselves as the victims, the Brewers as persecutors and A.N.Other yet to be revealed as rescuers.
    A pity SPCK, when selling off the shops, didn`t know about Dr Berne`s work on T shirts, either – or they would have noticed that while the front of the brewer T shirt was emblazoned WE ARE THE GOOD GUYS, the flip side read AND WE NEVER TELL THE TRUTH.

  9. Another memo that has backfired…

  10. I think that Phil Brewer was welcoming new agency staff on board. He was trying to say welcome to Alice in Wonderland, where nothing is as it seems. For me the bottom line to staff is, “learn to be crooked like me.”

  11. Phelim McIntyre

    Since all this posting I have come across this story in a number of motivational books and on the web. Some say a village, others say an Indian village. The only person I can find who thinks it is a Russian village is Phil Brewer. What does this say about him that he had to change the location of the village?

  12. Pingback: Durham Cathedral Bookshop: A Case Study in Dealing with Debt - Philip Brewer Style « SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info

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