Keith was the Managing Director of a construction company.  A qualified surveyor, he had long since abandoned his profession as he rose, too rapidly for his own good, through the management hierarchy.

Keith had some very irritating characteristics.  First, he always, even when angry, wore a supercilious smile. It was an ‘I’m better than you’ smile.  Second, he didn’t walk; he strutted and, thirdly, he always knew best.

Whatever the topic or occasion, Keith behaved as if he knew more than anyone else who might be present.  When, for example, he met a neuroscientist at a party, he knew more about synapses, plasticity and the workings of the brain.  Once, watching his young son play in a prep-school cricket match, he found himself sharing a bench with the Foreign Secretary (whose son happened to be playing in the visiting team).  Keith behaved as if he knew much more about world affairs and foreign policy than the minister.  It was the same when he had a chance encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury during the interval at a promenade concert in the Albert Hall.  Suddenly he was an authority on God, falling church attendances, female bishops and homosexuality among the priesthood.

Needless to say these know-all tendencies extended to Keith’s interactions at work.  He always knew more about absolutely everything – the newest building methods and materials, the effect of strong winds on tall buildings, health and safety regulations, the stock market – his knowledge was apparently boundless.

Keith’s unrelenting arrogance affected people in different ways.  Some, who would normally be talkative, even a touch boastful, would lapse into a submissive silence. Others would initially be indignant, and for a while attempt to match Keith point by point, only to give up once they realised the futility of getting Keith to back down or admit that he didn’t know what he was talking about.  Yet others would be so incensed that they’d summon up hidden reserves and, astonishing even themselves, become fiercely competitive, determined to win the day.  Other people, very sensibly, reacted to Keith by doing their best to ignore him and carry on with their lives.

One of the consequences of Keith’s arrogance was that he had, simply had, to win every argument.  When he went to a meeting (and that was often!) he would seize on some small point and prolong the discussion until he had prevailed. Any resistance was counter-productive; it simply extended the debate. If someone was unwise enough to produce a slipshod argument, Keith would swoop on it and persist until the unfortunate person had been beaten into submission. If there were no contentious points, then Keith would invent some.

One day Keith had an important meeting to chair in the boardroom.  The meeting, scheduled to start at 10.30am with clients from Malaysia, had been arranged to finalise a contract worth millions of pounds.  Naturally Keith had prepared for the meeting by going through the draft contact line by line.  At 10.00am, with everything ready, Keith visited the toilet and was outraged to find that it hadn’t been cleaned and that two of the lavatory bowls were blocked.  He burst into the nearest office and demanded that the astonished occupants call up maintenance and ask someone to come and fix the toilets as a matter of extreme urgency.

Keith considered it so important to have the toilets in order before his important visitors arrived that he decided to wait and personally check that the necessary actions were under way. An apologetic maintenance manager was soon on the scene, with a janitor in tow, puzzled about why the toilets hadn’t been serviced in the usual way.

As they set to work on the blockages Keith said, sarcastically, ‘Thomas Crapper would be proud of you.’  The maintenance manager replied ‘Surely you mean Thomas Twyford?’  ‘No,’ snapped Keith, ‘I mean Thomas Crapper, the inventor of the water closet.’

If the conversation had ended there, all would have been well.  Unfortunately the maintenance manager, not appreciating the folly of his action, stood his ground and said, ‘I happen to know that it was Thomas Twyford who invented the first trapless china water closet in 1885.’

‘Oh, come, come,’ replied Keith dismissively, ‘Everyone knows that the water closet was invented by Thomas Crapper in the mid-1800s.’

‘Well,’ said the maintenance manager, ‘I’m pretty sure you’ll find that, despite rumours to the contrary, Crapper was a successful plumber but he did not invent the water closet.’

For Keith this was the equivalent of a red rag to a bull.  He rushed back into the next door office, commandeered the nearest computer and typed ‘inventor of the water closet’ into the Google search engine.  There he learnt that the earliest water closet was invented by Sir John Harrington in 1596 and was reinvented two hundred years later by Alexander Cummings. However, Thomas Twyford emerged as the master toilet maker in, damn it, 1885.  It was a myth that toilets were invented by Thomas Crapper.

Mortified at being found wrong, Keith printed off the information and rushed to the boardroom still clutching the data from  His contretemps with the maintenance manager meant that he was 15 minutes late and his Malaysian guests were not amused.

In the circumstances, the excuse that he had been delayed arguing about who had invented the water closet seemed inadequate to the occasion.



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